Major League Baseball has a number of issues to grapple with after canceling spring training and delaying the start of the 2020 regular season. Officials are scrambling to figure out a new schedule, how to adjust service time and whether season-long incentives will change if the season has to be shortened.
One of the biggest issues, however, revolves around whether players will be paid while the season is on hiatus due to the coronavirus — also known as COVID-19. By declaring a national emergency Friday, President Donald Trump may have given MLB an answer to that question, according to Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
Due to a clause in major-league contracts, commissioner Rob Manfred can suspend deals “during any national emergency.”
On Thursday, when Manfred announced that the 2020 season would be delayed, the first sentence of his statement included the phrase, “national emergency.” A clause in every major league player’s contract — and also included in the sport’s collective-bargaining agreement — gives the commissioner the right “to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.” If Trump had not acted, the union might have argued that Manfred could not invoke a national emergency on his own.
As Drellich and Rosenthal note, Manfred used the phrase “national emergency” in the first sentence of his statement announcing the delay of the 2020 regular season. Prior to Trump’s declaration, the MLB Players Association could have argued Manfred did not have the power to invoke a national emergency. That argument now won’t work if MLB decides to hold paychecks from players.
MLB players unsure they’ll be compensated during coronavirus delay
Uncertainty over that issue has led to some confusion among the players. Some players and agents are afraid that players leaving spring training now could make it easier for MLB to withhold wages. A source told Drellich and Rosenthal that wasn’t the case. Still, players are staying ready so they can play games sooner. The players believe they can use that readiness to “create a greater justification for getting paid, both to the public and MLB.”
MLB won’t necessarily withhold pay from players during national emergency
While MLB can technically withhold pay from players during a national emergency, Manfred isn’t set on doing that, according to Drellich and Rosenthal. The league has reportedly discussed options that would allow owners to pay players in advance of the 2020 season getting underway. Players only get paid in season, and do not receive paychecks in the offseason. It’s unclear how any proposal from the league would change in MLB has to shorten its season.
What will happen to minor-league players?
There is no mention of minor-league players in Drellich and Rosenthal’s article. Minor-league players are among the most underserved and vulnerable groups affected by the regular-season delay. Like major-leaguer players, minor leaguers only get paid in season. Unlike major-league players, the overwhelming majority of minor leaguers are not paid a living wage.
One anonymous minor-league player detailed that uncertainty in a message to The Athletic’s Emily Waldon.
Some thoughts from a former minor league player, who wished to remain anonymous. pic.twitter.com/HpPELQTTbL
— Emily Waldon (@EmilyCWaldon) March 14, 2020
Minor-league players are not part of the MLBPA, and would not be included in a grievance if the union were to take action against MLB over withheld wages.
MLB faces more issues than just player wages
Player wages are far from the only issue the league faces. Planning an altered schedule is a difficult undertaking. If that schedule includes fewer than 162 games, new service-time rules will have to be implemented for this season. Will prospects like Nate Pearson or Nick Madrigal still need to sit in the minors for three weeks so teams can manipulate their service time?
On top of that, many players have season-long incentives as part of their contracts. Minnesota Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda, for example, receives bonuses based on how many innings he pitches in a season. His contract was assembled assuming he would play in 162 games. How will his incentives be treated if the season is 20 games shorter?
There’s also the issue of when the regular season will actually start. MLB initially pushed the regular season by two weeks, but that timeline still presents issues in some cities. Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker wants all sporting events in Chicago to be canceled until May. Team owners in the city have reportedly agreed to that plan.
MLB delaying the season was the right call
MLB — and other professional leagues — made the right call in postponing games. More than 132,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus. Nearly 5,000 people have died as a result of the virus. The decision to stop playing games will save lives.
That decision also comes with complicated labor issues — both practical and ethical — that every professional sports league will have to navigate in the coming weeks. While important, those issues pale in comparison to keeping others — especially those who are vulnerable — safe during a national emergency.
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