Cactus League adds new wrinkle to MLB, union’s game of chicken: Sherman

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MLB wants a universal DH. The players association wants a universal DH. These sides actually agree on something. Yet, there may not be a universal DH in 2021.

Such is the relationship between these factions.

MLB a few weeks back offered the universal DH as part of a larger package that, among other items, asked for enlarged playoffs again in 2021 in return. The players association rejected the bid. Does that mean there will not be a DH or an expanded postseason? Maybe.

MLB announced an agreement with the union for expanded playoffs last year literally hours before the first pitch of the delayed season began. These sides essentially never act until the eleventh hour. Sometimes the twelfth.

Expect the same when it comes to when personnel will show up in spring training. Report dates begin Feb. 17 in Florida and Arizona. But on Monday officials representing the Cactus League — which hosts 15 teams in Arizona for spring training — sent a letter to MLB requesting spring training be delayed a month. The officials wrote that experts they consult felt holding off the opening until mid-March would significantly decrease the rate of COVID-19 infections in Maricopa County, which currently is among the worst epicenters of the virus in the world.

Both MLB and the players association put out bland statements. The key behind the scenes is to know the union sees the Cactus League officials as tools of MLB. The union continues to state all other sports are playing, including in Arizona; the NHL with fans. The union sees all attempts to push back the season as MLB wanting to cut games so owners save money by not paying players. Conversely, MLB sees this version of the union as doing nothing but rejecting proposals and offering up no counters to further negotiations and foster cooperation and concession.

Here’s the thing, though: I think both sides know it would be smart to delay a month allowing for vaccines to perhaps even reach personnel by then. So shorten spring training to four weeks, enlarge rosters to 28 for the first month and play, say 145 games to stay in the window of October playoffs that the network partners want while cutting some games to possibly protect arms that were not fully stretched out in last year’s abbreviated season.

But I also think the sides hate each other so much that they might play chicken. Neither side blinks. Everyone shows up in mid-February, when the risk of contracting the virus — especially now with more contagious strains — is not just greater for players, but perhaps more vulnerable coaches, bus drivers, food preparers, etc. The players are in the dominant position in that they must agree to any changes or else all goes on under current rules in a collective bargaining agreement that does not expire until after the season: players report Feb. 17, no DH in the NL and a 10-team playoff.

I do think the sides should find compromise, make concessions so the sport gets the extra playoffs, the universal DH and a safer opening to spring. In a 145-game season, both sides can eat 8 ¹/₂ games of salary and the pain would not be substantial. But if the sides cannot compromise, then the owners should just pay the full 162 and play 145. Because it is the right for the game and health. Because they have a mechanism to save dollars by lowering future payrolls to compensate for anything lost this year.

Of course, in this fight no one wants to show weakness, so the chances of enduring mutual pain for mutual gain is not great. The two sides negotiated last year as if 2020 were the last season MLB would ever play — so don’t leave a dime on the table. We are seeing a repeat. They should be worried how much they are throttling the golden goose by not only projecting such discord at a bad time for the nation, but failing to find a partnership that positions the sport best for a future when, among other items, demographics and further cord cutting threaten popularity.

The 2020 season was problematic. This one will be, too. There will be no winners. Take a bigger view. Reverse engineer this and have both sides ask, what can be done in a troubling 2021 season that will set up the sport to be in a better place in 2025?

I don’t like the possibilities of that happening between two sides that can’t even agree to have a universal DH when both want it.

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