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As coronavirus delays opening day, MLB's players settle into suspended reality

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
With opening day now months, not weeks, away because of the coronavirus, many baseball players are in a state of limbo. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Joe Smith was for another day waiting it out in Florida, Nolan Arenado was doing the same in Arizona, Josh Lindblom was packing to go home to Indiana, Rich Hill was on his way up the coast.

By Monday, the start of the baseball season was officially not weeks away but months, that from first the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and then baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. They lagged behind the assumptions of most by at least a few days, but everything seems to now.

Players found themselves somewhere between haste and acquiescence, in a rush to nowhere and fine by that. The alternatives are few.

In the morning their union told them negotiations for how they would be compensated this season, assuming there is a season, were ongoing. By afternoon the commissioner had told the owners that eight more weeks of social distancing meant a lot more time without baseball. By that schedule, mid-May seemed a reasonable best-case scenario, though many in the game say they would be surprised to see a real game in a stadium with a crowd ahead of July. One executive predicted Memorial Day, which is May 25, and six weeks before July, and that’s about where opinions lie.

Major League Baseball executives left Phoenix on Saturday night after a succession of meetings with union leaders. They negotiated against a moving target. Today’s agreement — when rosters might freeze as a delay seeps deeper into spring, who pays living wages during a spring training that has been abandoned, what to do about opt-out clauses (many have a deadline of next week) when there is nothing to opt out from (or to) — is tomorrow’s reconsideration. They continue to negotiate, though not in person. From those talks came a joint MLB-MLBPA donation of $1 million to help feed those in need.

Manfred left a conference call with MLB owners Monday as San Francisco went full lockdown and New York schools closed and stocks plummeted and curfews were initiated and the first trial coronavirus vaccine was administered. Owners would like to play as many games as possible. So would players. So would the union. So would fans.

Against the backdrop of a nation — a world — with its mind and body elsewhere, however, there can be no real plan. There will be as many games played as there is time for them, when the time does come. There will be career and financial hits. There will be inconveniences. There will be unforeseen consequences. Those hardly seem relevant. To that end, owners on Monday’s conference call discussed a plan to assist those who work at major league ballparks.

Meanwhile, camps from West Palm Beach to Surprise are running in narrow capacities. Teams generally have told players to be where they feel safest and most comfortable, whether that be at home, in their big-league city or near spring training camps. Many players have stayed in the vicinity of their spring sites. One National League club has devised a program where a limited number of players sign up for time slots in the weight or trainers rooms, with enough time in between those slots to allow workers to disinfect the equipment.

So players considered today’s today, and some filled boxes that were supposed to be filled in a week and sent to a different place, and others hit baseballs off tees, and others waited for people to finish spraying Lysol so they could get on the bench press. The sport’s leadership put reaching an agreement with the union as a top priority, in part so it could move on to the next priority, which maybe hasn’t revealed itself yet. The union tended to a million questions from more than a thousand members. Minor leaguers remained in limbo.

It was day four.

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