Major League Baseball is figuratively sheltering in place while the COVID-19 pandemic escalates throughout the U.S., having settled several major issues with regards to the work stoppage, such as salaries and service time, via an agreement reached last Friday. As the league and the union look ahead to when it might be possible to start the 2020 regular season, a report from a Chicago sports radio host, Matt Spiegel of 670 AM The Score, has sketched out one possible outline, in a series of tweets he sent on Tuesday afternoon (one, two, three).
Citing “a well informed source that does business with multiple MLB execs,” Spiegel reported that MLB is discussing the possibility of a 100-game season that would begin July 1; eliminate the All-Star Game, which is currently scheduled for July 14 at Dodger Stadium; eventually pick up the post All-Star Game schedule; and run through October 15. Instead of hosting the All-Star Game, Dodger Stadium would serve as a neutral site for a warm-weather World Series, with Anaheim or San Diego serving as a second site if the Dodgers — whom FanGraphs projected to be the best team in baseball, with 97 wins and a 97.6% chance of making the playoffs over a 162-game season — make the World Series. The scenario assumes that the ALCS and NLCS would still take place at the venues of the qualifying teams, a risk given the possibility that those series could stretch to November 3. Of course, “many questions remain, & talks are fluid,” according to Spiegel.
Leaving aside the possibility that this is some April Fool’s prank — which, under the circumstances, should result in nothing short of a (socially distanced) trial at The Hague — it’s worth noting that this scenario has yet to be confirmed by the league. Nor has it even received a second report via the familiar cast of MLB insiders, the Rosenthals and Starks and Passans and Shermans who make the world of baseball news go ’round. So perhaps this is just cloud talk, a fantasy floating by. Even so, while recognizing that there’s no plan that will satisfy everybody, this scenario — which should be regarded as a best-case one — doesn’t sound so bad. While acknowledging that the decision on whether to start on a given date may well be out of MLB’s hands, this is at least a plausible sequence of events.
We’ve already been conditioned to accept the possibility of a 100-game season based upon the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines calling for the cancellation or postponement of events consisting of 50 or more people through at least May 10, a recommendation to which MLB is adhering. That best-case scenario would allow for a three-week resumption of spring training and the start of the season in early June, but it may now be a pipe dream given the ominous trajectory of the coronavirus’ spread in the U.S. Because of that, it’s somewhat reassuring to think about that 100-game scenario — the rough equivalent of the strike-shortened 1981 season, albeit without the two “halves” — remaining intact even if its start is pushed back by a month relative to previous expectations, and if its postseason takes on an unprecedented form.
As for that postseason, Spiegel’s report doesn’t flesh out what it might look like before the two League Championship Series. Just spitballing here, but even if the format remained the same, it seems possible that MLB might choose to host games at neutral sites in order to minimize the number of travel-induced off days. Then again, even if the Wild Card games were doubled up to be played on a single day, the net gain through the Division Series is just three days. What’s more, it’s those travel days that minimize the number of four-games-per-day pileups during the Division Series; five days in a row of that might be too much for the networks, viewers, and the rest of the baseball industry to withstand, though right now that certainly sounds more appealing than no baseball at all.
As for Dodger Stadium, it has undergone a $100 million offseason renovation in anticipation of hosting the All-Star Game for the first time since 1980. No Dodger Stadium game has been rained out since the 2000 season, and none of the seven World Series games the venue hosted in 2017 and ’18 had a first-pitch temperature below 67 degrees. As warm-weather options go, it’s reasonable bet to be playable in early November. It also has the highest seating capacity (56,000) of any existing venue; among the retractable roof parks besides the Rogers Centre (49,282, but likely ruled out due to the additional logistical complexity international travel would bring), the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field (48,686) and Seattle’s T-Mobile Park (47,929) are the largest, and from there the dropoff is steep, with Miller Park (41,900) the next-largest, and Tropicana Field (25,000) the smallest.
As for the virus’ spread, the projections for the death count in the U.S. are now in the 100,000 to 240,000 range, and the country faces a dearth of the tests and treatments that could accelerate a return to something resembling normalcy. In the face of such unfathomable figures, the resumption of professional sports may seem trivial, and to the individuals directly affected by those deaths, it certainly is. Even so, the opportunity for the games to provide an audience of millions some combination of entertainment, distraction, relief, unity, and above all hope as we emerge from the worst of this crisis should not be underestimated. Major League Baseball can certainly be a part of that combination, and by most indications wants to be part of that. Via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, here’s what MLB Players Association chief executive Tony Clark said last week upon the hammering out of the aforementioned agreement:
“Players want to play. That’s what we do. Being able to get back on the field and being able to play, even if that means their fans are watching at home. Being able to play for their fans is something they’ve all expressed a desire and an interest to do, and to do so as soon as possible.”
…“We would play as long as we possibly could. Obviously, the weather becomes a challenge the later you get in the calendar year, but we would do our best to play as many as possible regardless of when we start.
“How many games remains to be seen.”
In order for the season to start, certain conditions have to be met. Again via Nightengale:
-Medical experts determine games will not pose a risk to the health of players, staff and spectators.
-There are no travel restrictions.
-Removal of legal restrictions on mass gatherings that would prevent games in front of spectators.
Yet, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend no gathering of more than 50 people, MLB officials and the players would be willing to play in front of empty stadiums and at neutral sites.
There may not be unanimity on that last point. Per Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, quoting a league source, “MLB has little to no appetite for playing games in empty stadiums or for a postseason that extends into December.” The phrase “not a lot of appetite” similarly turned up in an article by Jayson Stark at The Athletic last week, from “one baseball person who is likely to be involved when these discussions arise,” though the words from Stark’s piece were in reference to playing a whole season without fans.
Such stances aren’t unreasonable. Playing in empty stadiums would at least allow for the fulfillment of television contracts and prevent cable subscription cancellations — which according to Craig Edwards provide more than 90% of revenues for regional sports networks — and might be used as an interim step if CDC guidelines are loosened but not fully lifted by the targeted Opening Day. That said, via Stark, the team-to-team inequities in TV deals may give some teams pause about going this route without an agreement to share additional revenue. Meanwhile, beyond any weather-related concerns for games and travel, a postseason extending into December would be problematic due to the additional competition baseball would face from other major sports, whose seasons will have presumably resumed or started by then.
The quotation from Verducci arrived in the context of his look at the obstacles Nippon Professional Baseball faces in its attempt to resume its season. In Japan, which has far fewer cases on a per-capita basis than the U.S., teams began playing practice games on March 20, and targeting April 24 for Opening Day. Players, staff, and media are been screened as they enter ballparks, but nonetheless, within that first week, three players on the Hanshin Tigers tested positive for COVID-19 infections; players and staff were ordered to self-quarantine, and practices were suspended. NPB may be forced to reconsider the date of its opener in light of a recent spike in infections that has put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe under pressure to declare a state of emergency.
How NPB, or MLB for that matter, would handle the situation if a player tests positive during the regular season is just one question that would have to be answered before play can be restarted — one of several that can’t be answered at this time. That may well be why nobody at the league is stepping forward to float this proposal through more familiar channels, let alone formally announce it yet. Perhaps that 100-game goal will have to be trimmed to 90 or 80 games as the weeks go by. But as we squint into the distance at what baseball might look like later this summer and fall, this plan is something to focus upon. And, given the alternative of no baseball, to root like hell for in hopes that it comes to pass.