Amid escalating concern over the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball decided Thursday to cancel all remaining spring training games and postpone Opening Day at least two weeks, joining the other three in-season major North American professional sports leagues in opting to push pause.
It's unequivocally the right call. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has emphasized the importance of "social distancing," or consciously reducing close contact between people, in helping to curtail the spread of the virus - which has already produced more than 127,000 cases and 4,300 deaths worldwide - and prevent the overwhelming of health-care systems.
Still, the decision cast a cloud of uncertainty over the 2020 season, giving rise to a host of questions, many of which can't be answered easily. Let's wrestle with a few of them.
If the season were to begin April 9, which was tentatively pegged Thursday as the new Opening Day, it's possible, and could be achieved a couple of ways.
If the league is determined to end the regular season by Sept. 27, as originally scheduled, it could cancel the All-Star Game and instead use that week for make-up games - or, potentially, make-up doubleheaders - with the remaining contests to be made up during originally scheduled off days. But that would be brutal for the players, who already get precious few off days during a normal season and relish the All-Star break breather. A better solution would be to simply extend the regular season into mid-October, with teams agreeing to potentially play out the postseason at neutral sites with retractable roofs or in warm locales.
In all likelihood, though, the season will be shortened. Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker has recommended to the owners of Chicago’s professional teams that the state hold no major sporting events until May 1, according to Scott Powers of The Athletic, and it's not hard to imagine other state and/or local government officials sharing that desire to err on the side of caution. It's likely the MLB regular season doesn't get underway April 9, and any further delay would almost certainly necessitate a truncated campaign.
A shortened season wouldn't be unprecedented. Most recently, in 1995, after the players' strike (which resulted in the cancellation of the previous year's World Series) persisted into spring, the regular season was comprised of only 144 games following an early-April labor-stoppage resolution. A midseason strike in 1981 effectively split the campaign into two halves, with teams playing between 103 and 109 games. In 1972, the first players' strike in MLB history cost each team between six and eight games, except for the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros, who each played nine fewer than the scheduled 162.
It's difficult to say, honestly, but the resolution is going to piss a lot of people off regardless.
First, a quick primer. Service time determines when a player is eligible for salary arbitration and free agency, and each day spent on a big-league club's 26-man roster (or injured list) earns a player one day of service time. While a season is technically comprised of 187 days, a player gets credit for a full year if he accrues 172 days of service time in a given campaign.
So what if the season is shorter than 172 days, and significantly so? A season running from April 9 through Sept. 27 would last exactly 172 days, and, again, that's a best-case scenario.
Imagine, for instance, that the season doesn't start until June. Will players receive credit for a full year of service time as long as they spend, say, 110 days on the active roster? If they do, owners and front offices will go ballistic. Baseball operations departments meticulously manipulate players' service time to secure more years of control over them and/or suppress salaries. Team executives won't just allow players to accrue service time they feel is undeserved.
Yet, if players receive anything less than a full year of service time for playing a full season - it's not their fault if the season gets shortened, after all - the MLBPA will presumably erupt, exacerbating the game's already strained labor relations. If, for example, the season starts in July and Mookie Betts only gets credit for 100 days of service time rather than a full season, he wouldn't be eligible for free agency this winter. The players' union wouldn't abide that.
The longer the season is postponed, the more complicated this decision gets. But somebody is going to get screwed over here. And if history is any indication, it'll probably be the players.
Players are mostly free to continue working out at their team's spring training facility in either Florida or Arizona for the time being. But they're not obligated to do that, and veteran second baseman Jason Kipnis best summed up the uncertainty over how to proceed.
While the frustration and disappointment after the postponement of the season is no doubt universal, this "extended spring training," as it were, is particularly devastating for the minor leaguers in camp, as they don't get paid for spring training. The financial blow to the service workers who make their living at ballparks also shouldn't be ignored.
Most players will probably hang around and continue preparing for the season, but the situation remains fluid and can change in an instant.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.