2020 Major League Baseball
The 2020 Major League Baseball season will be the twenty-first season in which the two major leagues, the National League and the American League, are consolidated into a single entity under the authority of the Commissioner, Rob Manfred.
The 2020 Major League Baseball season was originally slated to open on March 26th, the earliest date ever except for years when a foreign series had been played before Opening Day. All 30 teams were scheduled to play that day, a first since 1968 (when there were only 20 teams); this was already supposed to happen in 2018, but there were a couple of rainouts that year. However, events external to baseball changed these plans drastically.
Among the special occasions planned for the year were a series in Puerto Rico between the New York Mets and Miami Marlins which should have been played in late April, and the return of MLB to London, England with a two-game series between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in June. Both of these were canceled. The Little League Classic is scheduled to return for a fourth year in Williamsport, PA and a special game is scheduled to be played in Dyersville, IA next to the Field of Dreams movie set on August 13th.
A number of rule changes are slated to come into effect during the season, after having been approved a year earlier. They include the addition of a 26th player to the active roster, a spot nominally reserved for an additional position player as the number of pitchers will be limited to 13, and a rule forcing a relief pitcher to face a minimum of three batters or to pitch until the conclusion of the inning. The combination of these changes is likely to make LOOGYs much less attractive - already, the Houston Astros, often on the cutting edge of developments in baseball, had played the 2019 World Series without any lefthander on their pitching staff, so that adaptation had started. Also introduced was a limit on expanded rosters after September 1st, to 28 players and 14 pitchers. There will also be restrictions on the use of position players on the mound, and on the use of the injured list.
One of the major issues facing Major League Baseball during the 2019-20 off-season was Minor League Reorganization, namely the proposal to eliminate 41 minor league teams and some minor leagues altogether, in order to raise the salary of minor leaguers, something due to take place before the 2021 season. In contrast, after a couple of off-seasons during which commentators were tearing their hair and rending their clothes over the fact that free agency was "broken", this was not the case this time, as Ps Zack Wheeler, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole all signed huge contracts, the latter two with record-breaking figures, by the middle of December, followed in short order by 3B Anthony Rendon. Agent Scott Boras was personally behind the Strasburg, Cole and Rendon deals and an earlier sizable deal to Mike Moustakas, after having been the loudest critic of the supposedly broken system the previous two years.
Another major issue over the off-season was the sign-stealing scandal that engulfed two recent World Series champions, the 2017 Houston Astros and 2018 Boston Red Sox. This was started by revelations made by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers who told The Athletic that the team had put together a sophisticated system to steal their opponents' signs during their championship season through the use of technology. MLB immediately launched a thorough investigation that not only confirmed the allegations, but also brought to light a similar system devised the following season by the Red Sox - with Alex Cora, who was bench coach in Houston and the Sox's manager - the link between the two. On January 13th, Commissioner Manfred came down hard on the Astros, suspending GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a year, and also issuing a fine of $5 million and forcing the team to forfeit its top two picks in the next two amateur drafts. Astros owner Jim Crane then immediately fired the two culprits. While the punishment was one of the harshest ever handed by a Commissioner, there were still commentators who thought it was not enough given that it was in response to an egregious case of outright cheating - and had occurred only a short time after the Commissioner's office had issued a clear warning to all teams specifically on this issue. One day later, Cora was dismissed by the Sox before MLB had concluded its investigation into his own sins, as it was a foregone conclusion that he would also be issued a suspension. The New York Mets then followed suit, dismissing their manager, Carlos Beltran, who had been the only player named in the Commissioner's report.
A major storm hit all of professional sports as spring training opened, with the Coronavirus pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. While the pandemic started in China, it soon went global and led to postponed or canceled sporting events around the world. In mid-March, the NBA decided to suspend its season, and the NCAA announced it would play its flagship men and women's basketball tournaments without spectators present, before cancelling them altogether, in order to delay the spread of the virus. With Opening Day approaching fast, MLB announced its decision on March 12th, with spring training being stopped immediately and Opening Day delayed by two weeks - at least. That same day, two other North American professional sports leagues, the NHL and Major League Soccer, also announced the suspension of their activities. On March 16th, Commissioner Manfred stated that the season would not start until mid-May, at the earliest. On March 25th, he conceded for the first time that playing a full 162-game season was very unlikely.
On March 26th, which should have been Opening Day, MLB owners and the Players Association came to an agreement on a number of issues stemming from the season's delayed start. Players were to receive an advance of $170 million on salaries over the next two months, which was equivalent to around 4% of the salary mass, and prorated salaries relative to the number of games that would eventually be played. The players would keep the advance even if the season was to be canceled. Players would be credited with service time equivalent to that compiled in 2019, meaning that free agency would not be delayed for those eligible after the season. Finally, MLB now had the right to shorten the 2020 amateur draft to five rounds from the usual forty, and to twenty rounds in 2021. Bonuses for undrafted players who still want to sign will be capped to $20,000.
With the lockdowns in most states continuing into April with no immediate end in sight, MLB started to consider a number of alternatives for the season, including the possibility of starting the season with a block of games played without spectators under isolated conditions in Arizona, starting in May. This preliminary plan was met with skepticism, given there was little indication that sanitary conditions would be in place for such a complex scheme in the time span being contemplated. MLB immediately issued a statement on April 7th stating that a number of contingency plans were under consideration, that no decision had been taken, and that any decision would be taken after consultation with government and public health officials in order not to endanger anyone. Another plan was to have baseball resume in spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, and to have the Grapefruit League and Cactus League replace the two traditional circuits and being realigned into three divisions each to allow for an abbreviated season. In late April, rumors of an alternative plan emerged. Under that plan, which was still under development, the season would start in late June or shortly thereafter, and would last around 100 games. Teams would play in their home ballparks, but without fans, and would be split into three ten-team divisions, with all games played within these in order to reduce travel. Fans could possibly begin to be readmitted later in the season, in limited numbers, and salaries would need to be readjusted on a sliding scale in order to compensate for missing revenues from tickets, parking, concessions, and so on.
That later plan was refined, and by May 11th, more concrete details emerged as owners approved a tentative plan: spring training would resume in June, the season would begin on July 1-4, and teams would play 82 games in empty ballparks. The divisional structure would be retained, but games would be intra-divisional only, or against teams in the other league's corresponding division, in order to reduce travel to a minimum. The postseason would feature 14 teams instead of the usual 10, and there would be universal usage of the designated hitter. Active rosters would be expanded from 26 to 30, with a pool of 30 other players available to spell out players in case of injuries, as it was unlikely that minor league games could be organized. There was also talk of increased revenue sharing, including having player salaries not just scaled down to correspond to the number of games played, but also be proportional to total revenues, something that was unlikely to be accepted by the Players Association, as it represented a fundamental change to established practice.
Some prominent players, most notably Blake Snell went on the record opposing the revenue sharing aspect of the plan, stating that players had already made a huge concession by agreeing to salary cuts, and should not be asked for more given it was their health on the line, not the owners. For their part, the owners released figures on May 16th that showed teams would lose $640,000 per game played without fans present. They also sent the players' union a detailed protocol on how such games would be played, including: no exchange of line-up cards; no fights; no spitting, sunflower seeds or chewing tobacco; players spaced six feet apart in the dugouts and others sitting in the stands; players being asked to dress and shower in their hotel rooms, not in the clubhouse. There will also be multiple temperature screenings and regular COVID-19 tests for all participants, including close family members, with anyone testing positive being immediately quarantined. Masks will be worn everywhere except on the field, and there will be no socializing between players before or after games. There are also limits on the number of persons any team can bring to the ballpark, cutting out positions such as bat boys, and pitchers will have to provide their own rosin bag. Participants will also have to abide strict rules off the field to limit the risk of contagion.
On May 26th, the players' initial reaction to the proposed new financial structure was one of "extreme disappointment". The plan included a sliding scale of further cuts to salaries (in addition to the pro-rated cuts already agreed upon), with the players earning the highest salaries being asked to take the biggest cuts. This was however just the start of negotiations. They came back with a proposal for a 114-game season lasting until the end of October, leading to a deadlock. This was confirmed on June 3rd when the owners rejected the union's counter-proposal. The owners said they would not make any further offers, with the belief that the Commissioner retained the right, under the March agreement, to decree a 50-game season if the deadlock persisted.
Meanwhile, the world did not stop turning, as the United States was embroiled in protests, sometimes violent, following the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, killed by a policeman in Minneapolis, MN on May 27th, an incident which was filmed and sparked massive outrage. Numerous athletes, leagues and teams issued statement on the events, reaffirming their support for justice and racial equality, but it took ten days for MLB to react, on June 3rd, belying the sport's role as a leader in the fight for civil rights since the color barrier had been broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
On June 8th, MLB presented its counter-offer to re-start the season, proposing a 76-game schedule, a postseason with 16 teams, and pro-rated salaries for everyone (no more sliding scale), and also dropping any form of compensation for signing free agents, a long-standing demand of the players. This was also rejected quickly, making it clear that there was an impasse. That made it incumbent upon Commissioner Manfred to issue a solution unilaterally. But on June 15th, the Commissioner stated that he was no longer sure there would be a season, as he was reluctant to impose anything. Everyone involved seemed to be more interested in pre-positioning themselves for the next round of CBA negotiations, with no one defending the idea that baseball should be played. Simultaneously, both players and owners were taking a beating in the court of public opinion that reminded old timers of the golden days of labor strife in the 1980s and 1990s, and others were beginning to wonder what proportion of its fan base the sport would lose on a permanent basis if saner heads did not quickly prevail.
Under pressure, the Commissioner met on June 17th with MLBPA head Tony Clark for several hours in Phoenix, AZ and he announced that the two had agreed on the joint framework for an agreement to start the season that they would now submit to their respective constituents. On June 22nd, the owners agreed unanimously to the plan for a 60-game season beginning around July 24th - if everyone signed off on health and safety protocols, which happened the next day. Players were instructed to return to their home cities on July 1st to resume "spring" training, with the season starting three weeks later. The season would consist of 60 games played in a 66-day span, without spectators, and with teams only playing rivals in their geographic area. Additional rule changes included the universal use of the DH and the use of a tie-breaker rule for extra innings, but not the expanded playoffs that had been discussed earlier. Other changes included increasing roster limits to 30 players for the first two weeks, and 28 for the following two weeks, after which the 26-player limit would come into effect. In addition, teams would travel with a three-man "taxi squad", one of whom would necessarily be a catcher, ready to be activated at the drop of a hat, and also, with no minor league season, all of these players would be drawn from a pool of 60 designated players, who would continue a form of "extended spring training" throughout the season to be available to be called up at any time. Teams added their top prospects, included some players selected in the 2020 amateur draft, to that pool, on top of those normally on the 40-man roster, to ensure these key players would be exposed to the highest level of baseball available for the time being and not lose a complete season to inaction. A special injured list was also added for players testing positive for the coronavirus, with players having to meet certain medical conditions prior to reinstatement (akin to the special rules governing the concussion list). MLB also retained the right to relocate teams temporarily for health and safety reasons.
Just before "summer camps" were about to start on July 1st, a number of players began to announce that they were not interested in taking part in the season, due to concerns over health and safety. Among them were Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross of the Washington Nationals, Mike Leake of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Ian Desmond of the Colorado Rockies. In Desmond's case, he also took this opportunity to ask baseball to reflect on the little place it gives to African-Americans at all levels of the game. The first wave of tests of players joining their respective training camps revealed 31 positive cases among players, and another 7 staff members being infected. A number of players announced publicly that they had either contracted the disease (that was the case of Daniel Norris and Scott Kingery for example) and others that they had tested positive (e.g. Aroldis Chapman), but in many cases the names were kept private and reporters could only speculate by seeing who was and wasn't showing up for intrasquad games. It was clear that positive tests, or simply a delay in receiving a negative result, would be a factor throughout the season, and that teams would regularly be shorthanded as a result, even with a taxi squad and an expanded pool of replacements available. As Houston Astros GM James Click told reporters: "I really do think that whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win." Hence the importance of adhering strictly to the complex health and safety protocols put in place.
On July 18th, the first exhibition games between teams were played, less than a week before opening day, but on the same day the Canadian Government announced that the Toronto Blue Jays would not be able to play any home games in Toronto, ON, as it would not grant the exemptions required for visiting teams to cross the border. This was motivated by the fact Canada had been successful in "flattening the curve" and bringing the number of new cases on its territory to a minimum, while the situation was still chaotic south of the border. The Jays settled on using PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA as an alternate home base for the season, but within 24 hours, that plan fell apart as the state of Pennsylvania refused to authorize it. Opening Day did take place on July 23rd, with a game played on each coast. That day, Commissioner Manfred sprung a surprise as he announced a revised postseason format for this season only, that would feature 8 teams from each league and dispense with the Wild Card Game, replacing it with a preliminary round featuring best-of-three match-ups played entirely in the home ballpark of the better-seeded team.
The health and safety protocols were seriously tested for the first time on July 27th, when a number of members of the Miami Marlins tested positive, and others who had been in close contact with them had to placed in preventive quarantine while waiting for test results. The Marlins had been scheduled to travel back to Miami, FL to start a home series against the Baltimore Orioles that day, but stayed put in Philadelphia, PA instead, forcing the postponement of their game. The New York Yankees were also affected, as they were scheduled to be the next visiting team to play in Philadelphia that day, but the visiting clubhouse first had to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, forcing the postponement of their game against the Phillies as well. Commissioner Manfred stated that such a situation had been expected and that he was hopeful the Marlins could resume playing in two days' time, but this was clearly a jarring development. When test results came back, there were 13 positives, and the Marlins were ordered to stay idle for a week and the Phillies for a few days, while a two-game series between the other two affected teams, the Yankees and Orioles, was quickly arranged. It wasn't clear if the missed games would be made up, and how they would affect the postseason if not. On July 30th, two members of the Phillies - a coach and a clubhouse attendant - also tested positive, forcing the postponement of their scheduled week-end series against the Blue Jays. In light of the damage done do the schedule and the likelihood of numerous doubleheaders down the road, MLB quickly adopted a rule that for this year only, doubleheaders would consist of two seven-inning games, the normal practice in the minor leagues. The roster rule was also tweaked, with a decision that the playing roster would only be reduced once, on August 6th, from 30 to 28 players, and the taxi squad would concurrently be increased to five players, with these rules in place for the remainder of the season and the postseason as well.
Amid all the gloom, there were some lighter moments, with many teams allowing fans to buy cardboard cutout images of themselves to place in seats in empty ballparks, with the profits going to charitable causes, in a move imported from European soccer. In many cases, fans bought seats for their children and pets as well, usually wearing team colors, with some teams also making sure that if a batted ball hit one of these figures, the souvenir would be recovered and delivered to the appropriate fan. Teams also piped in recorded crowd noise to simulate the presence of spectators, with some going as far as simulate the booing of home fans when the visiting pitcher threw to first base in an attempted pick-off. Mascots were banned from the field of play, but that did not prevent Mr. Met from attending a game from the cheap seats at Citi Field, sitting next to Mrs. Met, with both wearing appropriate face coverings. Orbit, the Astros' mascot, was seen dressed as a stadium vendor trying to sell bags of chips to the cardboard fans, albeit without much success.
With the season chugging along in spite of some COVID-19 outbreaks forcing some teams to take unscheduled breaks to ensure contagion was kept under control, it was social issues that hit Major League Baseball - and the entire sports world - in late August. The killing of George Floyd in May had created a wave of protest across the United States, but all sports were idle at the time because of the pandemic, and gestures of support were largely messages by teams and players. Another serious incident took place on August 23rd in Kenosha, WI, when another African-American man was shot by police, seven times in the back, in front if his three children, leaving him paralyzed. This started another wave of protests, and on August 26th, the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA decided not to play a scheduled playoff game. The movement snowballed, as all other NBA playoff games were cancelled. In baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers' players announced they had decided not to play that evening's game against the Cincinnati Reds, who declared their solidarity. A number of individual players also elected not to play that day, including Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Matt Kemp. When this news began to circulate, four teams on the west coast elected to join in the movement, forcing two more cancellations. MLB immediately issued a statement, expressing understanding and support for the players' position. Other sports were also affected in what was a nation-wide movement, with the Women's National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer also cancelling games, and some tennis players joining in the protests. The following day, another seven major league games were postponed. The most poignant moment took place at Citi Field where players from the New York Mets and Miami Marlins took their position on the field, observed a 42-second moment of silence in memory of Jackie Robinson, then walked off as Marlins OF Lewis Brinson draped a "Black Lives Matter" tee-shirt over home plate.
On September 10th, news emerged that MLB would make additional changes to the postseason, with the use of neutral sites being considered. According to reports, the newly-opened Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX would be the site of the NLCS and World Series and another ballpark to be determined to be used for the ALCS. The idea would be to create bubbles, as had been done with success in other sports leagues, and limit travel by the teams involved. This was confirmed on September 15th, with Petco Park in San Diego, CA serving as the site of the ALCS. Neutral sites were also confirmed for the four Division Series, with Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA joining Petco Park for the ALDS, and Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX hosting an NLDS alongside Globe Life Field. With no travel needed, the series would all be played straight-through, with no off-days, adding another set of unknowns.
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- Associated Press: "Report: Major League Baseball projects $640K per game loss with no fans", USA Today, May 16, 2020. 
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- Mark Feinsand: "FAQ: Roster and transaction rules for 2020", mlb.com, June 25, 2020. 
- Mark Feinsand: "Commissioner addresses positive tests", mlb.com, July 27, 2020. 
- Alyson Footer: "Players united in message: 'Have to step up'", mlb.com, August 27, 2020. 
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- Richard Justice: "9 burning questions for the 2020 season", mlb.com, July 15, 2020. 
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- Gabe Lacques: "MLB's journey into the unknown: Here's how baseball's coronavirus-delayed season could play out", USA Today, March 12, 2020. 
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- Gabe Lacques: "Rob Manfred confident MLB will reach deal to play shortened season with players union", USA Today, May 15, 2020. 
- Gabe Lacques: "MLB response to George Floyd killing exposes its limitations as a social institution", USA Today, June 3, 2020. 
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- Gabe Lacques: "MLB is ready to play. Whether it should is a question with no easy answers.", USA Today, July 22, 2020. 
- Gabe Lacques: "'Deeply personal': Six teams, several players refuse to play as Jacob Blake protests extend to MLB", USA Today, August 26, 2020. 
- Gabe Lacques: "'We are not a functioning society': MLB players ponder next steps after decision to not play", USA Today, August 27, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB free agency is a booming business once again: 'Great teams want great players'", USA Today, December 10, 2019. 
- Bob Nightengale: "After winter meetings spending spree, attention turns to MLB's trade market", USA Today, December 12, 2019. 
- Bob Nightengale: "A dark day in MLB history: Astros' cheating scandal taints baseball, ruins club's legacy", USA Today, January 13, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB's coronavirus shutdown continues: Could season be pushed back several months?", USA Today, March 15, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "Major League Baseball, players union reach tentative agreement to salvage 2020 season", USA Today, March 26, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB considering radical realignment for 2020 season: Grapefruit and Cactus leagues", USA Today, April 10, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "Union chief Tony Clark still optimistic MLB will play games in some way in 2020", USA Today, April 15, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB discussing plan to start season in late June, playing in home stadiums with realigned league", USA Today, April 28, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB owners approve historic revenue-sharing plan amid coronavirus pandemic", USA Today, May 11, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB sends union, players 'daunting' health protocols on how to play game safely in a pandemic", USA Today, May 16, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLBPA 'disappointed' with Major League Baseball's economic proposal for 2020 season", USA Today, May 26, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "Embrace the chaos! MLB's 2020 season will be like nothing you've ever seen", USA Today, June 23, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "To play or not to play: MLB players face tough decisions amid coronavirus surge", USA Today, July 5, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "'Embrace the unconventional:' Opening Day has finally arrived, ready for 60-game sprint", USA Today, July 22, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "With Brewers' decision not to play – and others following suit – some in baseball finally take a stand", USA Today, August 26, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB's strange 2020 season gives players freedom to be themselves", mlb.com, September 23, 2020. 
- Mike Petriello:`"8 ways the 2020 season will be ... different", mlb.com, June 25, 2020. 
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- Manny Randhawa and David Adler: "2020 regular-season schedules revealed", mlb.com, August 12, 2019. 
- Jim Reineking: "MLB commissioner Rob Manfred isn't optimistic about 162-game season", USA Today, March 26, 2020.