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MLB season likely won't start until June at the earliest

Baseballs are seen during Yankees spring training in

Baseballs are seen during Yankees spring training in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 21. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Opening Day? Think Memorial Day. And probably later.

That’s the message commissioner Rob Manfred delivered during Monday’s conference call with owners, bowing to three letters mightier than MLB when trying to figure out the start of the regular season — the CDC.

As in the Centers for Disease Control, which mandates that no events larger than 49 people should be permitted to congregate for the next eight weeks because of the coronavirus threat. Not only did that officially torpedo MLB’s initial projection of a two-week delay (minimum) for Opening Day on April 9, but it pushes the start into late May and most likely June at the earliest.

“We will continue to monitor ongoing events and undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts,” MLB said in Monday’s statement, “and urge all baseball fans to follow suit.”

Just doing the math suggests the entire first half of the regular season now could be in jeopardy. With teams keeping their spring training sites open with only skeleton crews, at the behest of MLB and the Players Association, most of the rosters have scattered, leaving clubs in varying states of readiness by the time a date for a new Opening Day is decided.

Under the best-case scenario, and if the eight-week ban indeed is lifted on schedule, MLB could get the green light to proceed on roughly May 16. But from that point, players still would need a minimum of two weeks to prepare, and likely more, so you can do the math. After the 1994-95 strike was settled, spring training began on April 3 and Opening Day was April 26, the start of a 144-game regular season.

“We’re not going to announce an alternate Opening Day at this point,” Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’re going to have to see how things develop. I think the commitment of the clubs is to play as many baseball games in 2020 as we can, consistent with the safety of our players and our fans.”

Manfred, like everyone else, has been forced to adjust to a constantly changing situation, and it’s hard to believe that teams were still playing games — in ballparks filled with fans — only four days ago. Since then, both MLB and the union agreed to suspend spring training while providing three options for the players: remain at the team’s complex, return home or travel to the club’s host city until further notice.

Still, the approach to handling this coronavirus crisis varied from team to team, as some abandoned their spring training sites and others, like the Yankees, tried to stay together to continue the stripped-down workouts. The latter strategy, however, soon was frowned upon by Manfred after a Yankees minor-leaguer became the sport’s first-known positive test for COVID-19.

Manfred quickly sent a memo Sunday that advised teams not to hold group workouts of any kind, and the CDC also stepped in by putting restrictions on gatherings of 50 or more people. Looking ahead, that removed any chance of resuming spring training, even without fans present, during that eight-week period.

Settling on the next Opening Day is just one of many issues that Manfred and the Players Association need to iron out during this indefinite hiatus. Also high on that list is figuring out how players will be compensated in the interim as well as what a shortened schedule will mean for salaries. Paychecks typically don’t start until the games begin.

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