After weeks of back and forth between Major League Baseball and the union representing players, both sides essentially agreed not to agree, falling back on a deal they made in March to allow the league to schedule a 60-game season to begin in July.
For the moment, let's set aside the most basic question of why they couldn't just have done this sooner. The labor relationship between the two sides seems more complicated and entrenched than ever, but we need not worry about that until the current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2021 season. Right now, it's play ball though not like any ball you've ever seen.
While the whole manual for dealing with restrictions due to the coronavirus isn't public, we do know a few things. Testing is being ramped up significantly. Players will go through testing protocols and the league will even have its own lab in Utah handling quick turnarounds. There are a host of plans on how to deal with positive tests, symptoms and everything in between. The league and players will even have a health panel to determine how to handle everything from specific cases to high risk players and/or family members.
This won't prevent the disease from attacking players and members of the staff. Players have already tested positive. But, they hope to at least prevent a serious outbreak that could derail the season. An obvious concern will be an outbreak among certain positions on the field. Imagine the virus wiping out a pitching staff, for example.
With 60 games in only 66 days, a lot could go wrong. No doubleheaders have been scheduled to allow for the use of them in case of a rain out or other issues. It is going to push players who may not normally be accustomed to the pace, pitchers in particular. Injuries are expected and in a compressed timeline, that could have serious ramifications for teams.
There is also travel that will complicate matters. Teams will play 40 games against division rivals and 20 against the same regional division from the other league. In the case of the Astros, that means only AL West and NL West teams. While that might make it easy for east coast teams all bunched up together geographically, the west teams have to travel across three time zones and from as far south as Houston and as far north as Seattle. But, the 'Stros and Dodgers will hook up, which should be fun.
The league has agreed to expand rosters out to 60 players in a "player pool." Opening day active rosters can be 30 deep, reduced to 28 in two weeks and 26 thereafter. However, the teams can keep 60 players in their pool and designate three for a "taxi squad" that will travel to games as back up in case of illness or injury. The remaining non-active players will remain in a sort of limbo training camp near the home ballpark where they can workout and remain ready if needed.
With no minor league season, this helps a lot of players, but it also expands the possibility of a member of the roster getting sick.
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Now, the fun part. The league has tried to adapt some rules to this season — a few they expect will remain — for a variety of reasons. The first and most important, especially to baseball purists, is the universal designated hitter. The DH will now be a fixture of both leagues and most believe it will remain that way permanently. This is designed to help ease the workload on pitchers in a shortened season, but it's also something teams have wanted for a while.
The other crazy rule that is sure to rankle some fans is related to extra innings. In order to speed up the outcome, a player will be put on second base to begin the inning — the player preceding the batter leading off unless it's a pitcher. Teams will then play until someone wins. This has been tested in the minors and games that ended in the first extra inning shot through the roof. It certainly will help shorten games, but it feels a tad little league.
Still, in 2020, with everything happening, most fans should just be thrilled there is going to be something on TV other than reruns and something to watch other than shows already binge-watched 10 times on Netflix. And, if we are being honest, the new rules, the condensed schedule and the element of uncertainty injected into this season ought to make for some serious excitement.