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MLB, players’ union are working to salvage season, and the next two weeks are critical

Nationals Park sits empty amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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A two-tiered negotiation unlike any in the roughly 150-year history of Major League Baseball or the 54-year history of the MLB Players Association proceeds this weekend on parallel tracks, with nothing less than the fate of the 2020 season at stake. The issues: how to play baseball during a global pandemic and how to divvy up a shrinking pile of money.

Both carry immense challenges — in the case of the former, how to maintain the spirit of the game and some semblance of personal freedoms while keeping everyone healthy, and in the case of the latter, how to overcome deep philosophical differences and distrust built up over half a century of contentious coexistence.

And time is running out.

On the other side of Memorial Day, baseball will reach what should have been the two-month mark of a six-month, 162-game regular season. Instead, amid the novel coronavirus crisis, it is working desperately to launch a condensed, fan-less, 82-game season that would start around July 4, preceded by a roughly three-week “spring training 2.0” beginning in mid-June.

That leaves the first week of June as the rough deadline for when an agreement must be reached between MLB and the players’ union. And it makes the coming week a pivotal one if there is to be baseball in 2020.

“I can’t speak for the [owners’] side, but from the players’ side there’s definitely a sense of urgency,” said left-handed pitcher Brent Suter, the Milwaukee Brewers’ union representative. “The players really want to get this thing going. Our coaches have been laying out a calendar and letting us know, ‘Be ready and get yourselves ramped up for spring training 2.0 in mid-June,' so that’s what our mind-set is.”

On the health and safety front, the sides at least appear to be making progress, with MLB having written a 67-page manual — considered to be a first draft — covering issues such as testing, social distancing guidelines and risk mitigation. Among the key planks: Players and other personnel would be tested “several” times per week, spitting and high-fives would be disallowed, and players would be discouraged from showering or using hydrotherapy pools at the stadium.

The union, after disseminating the document to its members, responded Thursday with a series of questions, suggestions and requests for clarification on issues including testing frequency, protocols for positive tests, the presence of on-site medical personnel, protections for high-risk players and family members, access to pre- and postgame therapy, and sanitization protocols. Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout is among the players who have expressed reluctance to play without daily testing.

One person familiar with the dialogue said Friday that the sides already had made significant progress on the health and safety issues, less than 24 hours after the union had sent its response.

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But while none of the health issues appear insurmountable, the larger issue may be threading this needle through a dense patchwork of state and municipal guidelines regarding social distancing and mass gatherings that contain high degrees of variance and that can change based on the spread of the virus. It is also clear that, even if the owners and players agree on conditions for starting the season, it doesn’t mean public health officials will.

“You’d end up with a lot of infected players and other personnel,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research and a Washington Nationals season ticket holder, when asked what would happen if baseball moved forward under the terms laid out in MLB’s first-draft plan. “If it isn’t done right, not only would people get sick and potentially die, but it would shut down the season. I don’t see a way around it. It would be a miracle if they followed those instructions and it didn’t end up infecting people.”

Zuckerman, who holds a PhD in psychology and was a post-doctorate fellow in epidemiology and public health at Yale, has viewed parts of the proposal and said her chief concerns were twofold: First, by merely discouraging and not outright banning dangerous behaviors, such as socializing in groups while away from the stadium, players might not take the risk seriously enough and endanger themselves and others.

“Men in their 20s are not the most cautious group,” she said. “You have a problem when you only say, ‘We’re encouraging this behavior,’ rather than getting everyone to sign a contract for what you can and can’t do. Language matters.”

Secondly, Zuckerman said MLB’s proposal to isolate only the player (or other personnel) who tests positive, as opposed to every person that individual came into contact with, runs the risk of seeing a larger outbreak spread in the time between testing the larger group and getting those results back.

“I understand a 14-day quarantine [for the larger group] could result in no games for that period,” Zuckerman said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended quarantine period for people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. “But you can’t just quarantine the person who’s positive and tell everyone else, ‘Go ahead and keep playing.’ ”

For the union, another major issue yet to be resolved is how to treat players who decide not to play — whether because they’re at higher risk as a result of preexisting medical conditions, because they have family members in that category or simply because they believe the risk outweighs the benefits. Among the questions: Do they get paid? And do they accrue service time toward eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency?

As the Brewers’ union rep, Suter has been in frequent contact with his teammates and with union leadership, and he believes this issue will take time and dialogue to sort through.

“Personally, I’m leaning more on the side of wanting to play, and that I’m to take the risk to do my job and give something back to society,” said Suter, who is married with an 18-month-old son. “But I’m not in an immunocompromised position, and neither is anyone in my family. I can’t speak for anyone in that position, but I can 100 percent see why people wouldn’t want to play.”

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Asked how confident he was that the sides would reach agreement on the health and safety protocols, Suter said: “If you’d have asked me that at this time last week, I would have said I’m a ‘definitely.’ But now I’m a ‘maybe.’ ”

“There are just so many things to work through, so many questions,” he said. “If you test positive on the road, do you quarantine there? Do you rent a car and drive yourself home? Just so many things I hadn’t even thought of.”

Still, the healthy dialogue and shared goal (namely, getting on the field) between the owners and players at least suggest the possibility of an agreement on the safety and medical issues. The same cannot so easily be said about the economic rift — which finds both sides entrenched in positions that, at least on the surface, don’t appear to hold the promise of common ground.

The union believes the issue of 2020 compensation was settled by a late-March agreement calling for players to be paid prorated shares of their full salaries, based on the number of games played. MLB believes that agreement pertained only to games with fans, and that games without fans requires a different calculus — and a further financial concession from players — to account for diminished revenue. The language in the agreement is vague enough to permit either view.

Even though no formal proposals have been made on economics — MLB is expected to present one in the coming days — the issue has erupted, via media leaks and public statements, into a toxic cloud of accusations and vitriol. When MLB floated through the media the notion of a 50-50 share of revenue for 2020, the union made clear it equated that with a salary cap, deeming it a non-starter.

The owners claim they would lose billions by playing games without fans unless the players accept less money. The union disputes that and has asked MLB for documentation of its claim.

“I understand the criticism of both sides and the [complaint of], ‘Why can’t they get a deal together and play baseball?’ ” Suter said. “I would just say, from the players’ perspective, guys are going to be taking extra risk by playing and traveling and everything, and with the agreement we signed in March with a sizable pay cut, I can definitely see why guys would not be interested in taking another huge pay cut and going out there and taking all the risk.”

Though a specific path through this dispute is difficult to discern, there is a growing belief within the game that the sides will find a way to bridge their differences — if only because they have to. No one in charge on either side wants to be remembered as the people who lost a year of baseball over a money squabble.

“If we get to that point,” a high-ranking baseball official said, referring to gaining clearance from government and public health officials to move forward, “then we’ll have a season. Because everybody’s motivation is to have one.”

Suter, too, believes an agreement is out there to be made, if only because he saw the March pact come together between sides that started from similarly distant initial positions.

“This is a more daunting task, and there are more things to work through,” he said. “But with the March agreement, I was doubtful that there could be a solution, given where both sides started, and then all of a sudden it got done. I would hope we could use that as a model and get this season going.”

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