In “All the President’s Men,” the famous film about how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toppled Richard Nixon from the presidency by uncovering the Watergate scandal, the two reporters secretly met with a whistle-blower they nicknamed Deep Throat. In real life, this is the man who time and time again pointed Woodward and Bernstein in the right direction to break the story.
In one of the film’s most dramatic moments, Deep Throat implored Woodward and Bernstein to “follow the money.” Well, in trying to imagine what a 2021 Major League Baseball season will look like, that advice really points us in the direction of looking back at where the money — or lack thereof — was during the 2020 season.
And let’s all scrunch our brows, close our eyes and remember back to how difficult it was for MLB and the MLBPA to reach an agreement to play at all this past summer given the lack of gate revenue with zero fans at games. While it appeared there were negotiations going on, I would argue the owners were always going to land at a 60-game season if the players stuck to fully prorated salaries.The negotiations were ownership’s way of taking the air out of the ball to arrive at that number.
The owners and union have a relationship that can best be termed as icy (rhymes with dicey). As of mid-December, it appeared that National League pitchers would hit again in 2021, but the fact that the universal DH was still up in the air well into the offseason was galling.
On July 9, before the 2020 season even began, MLB announced the full 162-game schedule for 2021. I remember thinking how cool it was that MLB came out so proactively to tell its fans that it intended to play a full championship season.
I compare that to the feeling I had at the end of November when MLB announced which of its Opening Day games would be on ESPN April 1. I chuckled to myself and wondered what worldview MLB really had.
While fans may be back at games at some point during the summer of 2021, the last thing many people are thinking about right now is crowding into the stands at sporting events. The notion that spring training will start on or about Feb. 15 and that Opening Day will be April 1 seems farcical. That’s the conclusion one comes to if you follow the money.
In December, MLB and the MLBPA began discussing the important stuff regarding the upcoming season such as the start of spring training; the length of the regular season; roster size; the universal DH; extra innings, and the three-batter minimum rule for relievers. It really is quite shocking that these talks weren’t fast-tracked after the World Series, but that may be a tacit admission that the money won’t be there for a 162-game regular season. If so, MLB may move slowly in negotiations again.
Having said all that, here’s my crystal ball as to how the 2021 season will evolve and play out:
Start of spring training: While vaccines are going to be available in January and February, it might be a bad look for professional athletes to jump in front of all the normal people out there. More to the point — even if the athletes are vaccinated, fans won’t be able to fly to Florida and Arizona like they normally would. I look for training camps to again be held in big-league parks starting around March 15-20.
Start and length of the regular season: I see the 2021 season starting up around Memorial Day and lasting between 100 and 115 games. I also think we could see an expanded postseason again, with the World Series being played in November. MLB has already shown it’s willing to play the World Series in a neutral, warm-weather site, and the league likely won’t have to worry about the virus ramping up in the fall like it did in 2020.
Universal DH: It doesn’t seem like there’s any good reason not to institute the universal DH, but it looks like National League pitchers will hit again in 2021.
Roster size: Considering that pitchers never fully ramped up in 2020, the industry may be wise to limit pitchers’ workloads in 2021. It makes sense to have more pitchers on big-league rosters. Look for 28-man rosters.
Three-batter minimum rule for relievers: This rule never made much sense to me given that the purpose of the rule was to speed up the game. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred won’t want to admit a mistake after one season. I think this will be in place for 2021.
Starting with a baserunner on second base in extra innings: I have to admit that I hated this rule with a passion when I first heard about it two or three years ago. I thought it was preposterous. While I still maintain my old-school card, I actually liked this rule very much. My one small change might be to see if a winner could be determined naturally in the 10th or 11th inning before defaulting to this gimmick. But it’s a gimmick that in reality made extra innings much more interesting.
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