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Covid-19 and Major League Baseball: No Beginning in Sight

Yankee Stadium
Yankee Stadium, May 9, 2012 @ Shinya Suzuki on Flickr:

By Julie R. Tamerler*

Like many other sports around the world, all Major League Baseball games have been cancelled by Covid-19.[1] With Opening Day pushed back to rumored start dates in May or even July, owners, players, fans and other stakeholders are scrambling to determine just what to do about Major League Baseball’s (MLB) 2020 season.[2]

Contract Terms, Service Time: A No Wins Above Replacement Situation

A clause in paragraph 11 of the uniform player contract of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement specifically addresses the occurrence of a national emergency.[3] This clause “effectively allows MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred to suspend player contracts in situations where government orders force the cancellation of games.”[4] Although the league has this power, a payment plan was established with the union in an effort “to avoid addressing economic disputes once play resumes, as the MLB doesn’t operate under a salary cap like the National Football League or National Basketball Association.”[5] Additionally, this deal established that the 2020 season would still count for players’ service times.[6] While this may not seem like a big deal, its impact can be clearly seen when looking at outfielder Mookie Bett’s contract with the LA Dodgers.[7] The LA Dodgers traded several valuable long-term pieces for the last year of team control over Betts, on the theory that one superstar year from Betts could push the team over the top to a World Series win.[8] With the season in jeopardy, and Betts receiving a full year of service time regardless of any games being played, Betts may end up becoming a free agent without ever having worn a Dodgers uniform.[9] Additionally, New York Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton will be able to utilize an opt-out clause in his contract, potentially making him a free agent in 2021 after having played one less year for the Yankees than planned.[10] Another issue is the fact that a team may be losing a prime year on a player’s contract.[11] For example, the New York Yankees signed Garrit Cole on a nine year contract for a record setting $324 million overall, $36 million per year.[12] In such a long contract, it is understood that the price is averaged across the more productive years at the beginning of the contract and less productive years at the end, so losing Cole’s age 29 season represents not just a loss of one year but an increase in price paid for future years.[13]

Contractual Conundrums

Although actual baseball fans would like to see games being played in person, the MLB is considering having players play games in ballparks empty of fans in places like Arizona or Florida, with a focus on quarantining players.[14] Unfortunately, this “solution” to the delay of the 2020 season is not without its risks and issues. For example, state and federal cooperation would be required to allow these games to occur.[15] Additionally, each member of a 40 member team roster has had their own interactions in the meantime, and bringing a team together could put these players at risk of catching or spreading Covid-19.[16] Additionally, one has to consider the sheer number of people required to put a season into play; bus drivers, coaches, umpires, physical therapists, etc.[17] Additionally, stationing all 30 clubs in one area would necessitate the MLB coming up with their own testing system to ensure that an outbreak does not occur; this would need to be done without diverting local healthcare resources at a time when there is national concern about our healthcare system being overwhelmed and unprepared for Covid-19.[18] In a conference call with major league sports commissioners, President Trump stated that “he hopes to have fans back in stadiums and arenas by August and September… although it is currently unclear if medical experts find that to be a realistic timeline amid the current coronavirus pandemic.”[19]

Most importantly, if play resumes, there is no existing contractual apparatus to tell players that they are effectively in quarantine.[20] In theory, MLB would test each individual player, given the fact that individuals infected with Covid-19 may be asymptomatic.[21] Next, MLB would quarantine these players, telling them that they must go from the baseball stadium to the hotel, and back.[22] Players would be required to avoid their families, friends, and social life generally; effectively isolating the entire league in quarantine together.[23] These kinds of contractual requirements would be unprecedented.[24] Further, isolation is all or nothing; just one player leaving the “bubble” could cause an outbreak of Covid-19 within the league.[25] While some fans may be proponents of such an extreme measure, it is unclear how this would be handled with complaint players, but with those that would refuse to comply.[26] A player may refuse to agree to such drastic measures in order to play; for example, a player may have a compromised immune system or simply refuse to be away from family for so long.[27] What would happen to a player’s contract if they refused to enter the “bubble?”[28] Right now, it appears that the only certain thing about the 2020 MLB season is more uncertainty.[29]

*Managing Editor of Outside Works, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2020, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law


[1] See List of sporting events canceled because of the coronavirus, ESPN (Mar. 23, 2020), (listing various athletic events cancelled by Covid-19).

[2] See Bob Nightengale, MLB considering radical realignment for 2020 season: Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, ESPN (Apr. 10, 2020), (discussing potential proposal to realign current American and National leagues for abbreviated season; “The plan would have all 30 teams returning to their spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, playing regular-season games only in those two states and without fans in an effort to reduce travel and minimize risks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The divisions would be realigned based on the geography of their spring training homes. The plan would allow teams to return to the comforts of their spring training sites for three weeks of training, which would also include exhibition games, before opening the regular season and playing a schedule with wholly different divisional opponents.”)

[3] See Collective Bargaining Agreement (2016), 347, available at (“This contract is subject to federal or state legislation, regulations, executive or other official orders or other governmental action, now or hereafter in effect respecting military, naval, air or other governmental service, which may directly or indirectly affect the Player, Club or the League and subject also to the right of the Commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.”).  

[4] Thomas Barrabi, Coronavirus could cost MLB players money through national emergency clause, Fox Business (Mar. 16, 2020), (discussing MLB’s collective bargaining agreement).

[5] Jabari Young, MLB reaches agreement to keep players paid, even if the season never starts due to coronavirus, CNBC (Mar. 27, 2020), (discussing MLB agreement to continue paying players).

[6] See id. (explaining benefits extended to players); see also Service Time, MLB, (last visited Apr. 8, 2020) (explaining that each day spent on active roster or injured list counts towards determining when player is eligible for arbitration and free agency).

[7] See Bill Shaikin, Mookie Betts might never play for the Dodgers under MLB agreement on service time, LA Times (Mar. 26, 2020), (discussing Betts’ contract).

[8] See id (discussing Betts trade).

[9] See Mike Axisa, Mookie Betts is a Dodger in 2020, but what about 2021? Ranking all 30 MLB teams as free agent suitors, CBS Sports (Feb. 5, 2020), (examining market for Betts’ next contract).

[10] See Young, supra note 5 (discussing Stanton’s contract).

[11] See Jabari Young, Gerrit Cole agrees to historic $324 million deal with Yankees, reports say, CNBC (Dec. 11, 2019), (discussing Cole’s contract).

[12] See id. (discussing Cole’s contract).

[13] See Neil Weinberg, Basic Principles of Free Agent Contract Evaluation, FanGraphs (Jan. 14, 2016), (“Teams known that players will decline over the life of most contracts. In year one they will be getting more value for their money and in year five they will be getting less, but they only care about getting good value overall.”)

[14] See Jared Diamond, MLB Wants Alternate Sites, Not Empty Stadiums, If Coronavirus Disrupts Season, The Wall Street Journal (Mar. 11, 2020), (advancing idea of spring training being held in Arizona or Florida).

[15] See Katherine Acquavella, Coronavirus: MLB debating playing games at spring training ballparks without fans, per report, CBS Sports (Apr. 5, 2020), (discussing idea of games being played without fans present).

[16] See Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation, CDC, (last visited Apr. 11, 2020) (explaining that social distancing should be maintained to prevent spread of Covid-19).

[17] See Yankees Roster & Staff, The New York Yankees,

(last visited Apr. 11, 2020) (listing portion of The New York Yankees game day staff).

[18] See Tim Daniels, MLB Reportedly Considering Playing in Empty Stadiums During Coronavirus Pandemic, Bleacher Report (Apr. 4, 2020), (discussing issues associated with having players play in Arizona or Florida).

[19] Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, Sources: President Donald Trump says NFL season should start on time, ESPN (Apr. 4, 2020), (discussing President Trump’s hopes that various sports will resume soon).

[20] See supra note 3 (reflecting current collective bargaining agreement).

[21] See Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), World Health Organization (Apr. 2, 2020), (discussing Covid-19 transmission methods).

[22] See Roni Caryn Rabin, How to Quarantine Yourself, The New York Times (Apr. 6, 2020), (discussing methods that help combat Covid-19 transmission).

[23] See id. (discussing difficulties associated with quarantine).

[24] See John Clark, Zack Wheeler makes clear he won't miss his child's birth if MLB plays in isolation, NBC Sports (Apr. 11, 2020), (discussing how Zack Wheeler of Philadelphia Phillies will refuse to potentially play baseball in a “bubble city,” stating “‘I am not going to miss the birth of my first child. I don't care… I'm going to be there for her and the birth of my child. That's a fact. I think anybody would do the same thing. Any dad. Whether I have to come back here (Atlanta) and be with her and miss two more weeks because I have to quarantine to play again, so be it.’”)

[25] See supra notes 21-22 (discussing Covid-19 transmission and safety methods).

[26] See Brook Smith, MLB News: Players’ Families Will Be a Big Hurdle for Plan to Play, Dodgers Nation (Apr. 07, 2020), (discussing beginnings of pushback from players regarding potentially being separated from their families); see also Mike Leslie, Rangers' Frazier balks at MLB bubble city, WFAA (Apr. 9, 2020), (discussing Todd Frazier’s opposition to the “bubble city,” stating “Even if the health concerns are allayed, and MLB is able to orchestrate a bubble city, Frazier isn't sure players will want to leave their families.

‘Guys that have families, I think that most of them are going to be pretty upset about it, if you want the truth… I would be… It's very premature, what they're talking about.”)

[27] See id. (discussing potential opposition to “bubble city” proposals).

[28] See Nick Piecoro, MLB players push back on idea to leave families behind for baseball season in Arizona, USA Today (Apr. 8, 2020), (stating that “[o]ne player wondered if he could see his contract voided if he refused to go along with the [bubble city] idea.”)

[29] See supra note 2 (discussing MLB’s potential realigning to Grapefruit and Cactus leagues).