MLB, union check in with Anthony Fauci as spring training nears

After a year of contentious negotiations about how to handle this past season, with the end of their collective bargaining agreement looming after this one, the sides are at a standstill, their interactions marked by unrelenting mistrust and blatant animosity.

The saga continued recently as both sides consulted with government officials on health and safety guidelines.

MLB scheduled a call with the Biden administration to solicit information about the pandemic’s trajectory and the vaccine distribution effort, according to multiple people familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could freely discuss the matter. The Athletic was first to report the discussion.

The players’ union, meanwhile, was told about MLB’s call but opted to schedule its own conversation with Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to multiple people familiar with the plan. That call occurred this week, as first reported by USA Today.

The exact details of both calls remain unclear. A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, and neither MLB nor the union would comment on the specifics of the conversations.

MLB has been pushing the union to delay the start of the season until coronavirus cases decline across the country, according to people familiar with its plans. It sent a proposal calling for a month-long delay and 154-game season this past week. The players rejected it in part because they worried that while MLB agreed to pay a full salary for a 154-game season, it did not guarantee that amount if outbreaks forced officials to truncate the season even further.

The union has argued that compressing the season with a delayed start could raise health and safety concerns and that pushing back the season when pitchers are already engaged in throwing programs tailored to the planned start date could be problematic, too. And while coronavirus numbers might decrease in April, they could decrease again in June or decrease again in August, raising worries that the same argument could be justified to cut the schedule — and, therefore, player salaries — further.

Because the union rejected MLB’s most recent proposal and because it is under no obligation to offer a counterproposal with a collective bargaining agreement already in place, the season is scheduled to start in pre-pandemic form, with Opening Day on April 1. The playoffs will include 10 teams. The designated hitter will exist only in the American League. Spring training will start on time … probably.

Uncertainty lingers because the sides have yet to agree on health and safety protocols, a set of guidelines that dictate how MLB and the players deal with the pandemic. Compared with issues plaguing broader negotiations — say, expanded playoffs — these protocols seem like a less volatile matter.

But they may not be a gimme. According to three people familiar with the negotiations, the union included the universal designated hitter — something it has long favored — as part of health and safety protocols in a previous proposal this offseason. MLB rejected it.

You could argue a universal designated hitter has not been a part of health and safety measures in the past and that the pandemic does not impact the extent to which it is a health and safety concern now. (You also could argue that it always has been a health and safety concern, as evidenced by Max Scherzer’s broken nose in 2019.)

It remained unclear whether the union would dig in on the issue when it sorted through health and safety concerns. If it does, those negotiations could transform from rote formality to point of contention.

But as of Thursday afternoon, the season is set to go full speed ahead. For now, the only certainty seems to be that MLB and the players’ union will not agree on what it should look like and that no one is backing down.