Baseball in Arizona: Could it Work?

In case you’ve been living under a rock — and if so, good for you, great distancing, take a bow — there’s been one major development in baseball in the past few days: per Jeff Passan, the league is reportedly in the early stages of formulating a plan that would see games played in empty stadiums in Arizona as soon as May or June. (MLB has said it is not committed to any specific plan at this time, and will prioritize public health and safety in its decision-making.)

This is a bold plan, one that feels very out of line with how other sporting events are reacting to COVID-19. Wimbledon, which takes place in July, has already been canceled. The Olympics, scheduled for August, have been delayed a year. A plan to start up a major sports undertaking months before those dates will be fraught with hurdles. Let’s cover some of those, along with the potential workarounds, while keeping in mind that the entire plan is subject to forces well beyond MLB’s control.

How Many Personnel Would Be Isolated?
The first sticking point in the plan is the sheer number of people the league would need to isolate. In his piece on the plan, Ken Rosenthal reported that league and MLBPA officials are discussing rosters in the 50-player range to allow for the injury- and performance-related promotions and substitutions that teams normally make. That’s 1,500 people in isolation right there, and that’s only players.

Would players with families be allowed to bring their loved ones with them? It’s hard to imagine union approval if families aren’t allowed into whatever housing facility the league uses. The alternative — leaving spouses, partners, and children completely cut off from players — sounds terrible right away, but it’s even more unthinkable given the strained state of national resources.

Players might be willing to go on weeks-long trips without their spouse and children in normal times, but these are hardly normal times. With emergency services strained past the breaking point, what would happen if a water main burst, or a child became ill? Having your family in one place could literally be a matter of life and death.

As a conservative estimate, families would double the number of people in isolation. Not every player has family they’d bring with them, of course, but those who do will frequently have two or more people in tow. This doesn’t even consider extended family and unmarried partners, but if your normal living situation during this crisis features, say, a grandparent who helps take care of the kids, they’d likely need to come as well.

Next, the league would need coaching staff, team personnel, and umpires. Teams list personnel with varying degrees of granularity, but a rough estimate might be 30 people per team. Take the Cardinals, for example: a 16-person medical staff could be shaved somewhat by having teams share some roles (team dentist and team ophthalmologist spring to mind), but the Red Birds have seven clubhouse staff members, 14 members of the coaching staff, and two interpreters. Without even considering which front office members might join, the list is lengthy.

Umpires would be a smaller addition, but still a meaningful one. Fifteen teams of five umpires each might be able to cover everything, though more would be preferable to avoid overuse and allow for illness and injury. All told, this might come out to another 1,000 personnel, which brings the total to 4,000 people in isolation to give teams a full complement of players and staff.

Who Else Would Be Isolated?
Of course, isolating 1,500 baseball players, 1,500 family members, and 1,000 baseball lifers isn’t an exhaustive list. The fields don’t operate on their own; Chase Field, which would be a key cog in the schedule, lists roughly 60 employees as part of “Facilities and Event Services.” Even if half of those personnel are unnecessary with no crowds — the Coordinator of Shipping and Receiving Services, the First Impression Specialist, and the Mail Technician come to mind — that’s another 30 people necessary to keep the facility running.

That estimate might be low if the field is used for two games per day, to allow a full slate of games in the Arizona heat. And that doesn’t take other fields into account, either; let’s add another 300 people to account for facilities management. Add a 10-man camera crew for every game, and that’s 450 people.

Of course, all of these people need to eat. They need transportation to and from the stadiums for games. And they need accommodations, which will also need to be maintained. 4,500 baseball-related people is a large footprint. The rooms alone would be daunting: assuming families stay together and everyone else stays separately, which seems like a prudent way to promote social distancing, that’s 3,000 hotel rooms. A quick perusal of area hotels shows the enormity of this task: the Sheraton Grand Phoenix has 1,000 rooms, and it staffs 420 employees to handle those rooms.

Some of those employees probably aren’t strictly necessary. Room turnover will be nonexistent, and rooms won’t be cleaned every day; it likely isn’t even possible to clean every room in a day while maintaining social distancing. On the other hand, the hotel’s laundry burden will increase massively (uniforms, but also every single person living there’s daily clothes). They’ll be providing meals to far more people than usual; hotels have restaurants and kitchens, but they’re not staffed for 100% occupancy and for everyone in that 100% occupancy to eat there.

If baseball could find three hotels like the Sheraton, that would be another 1,250 employees involved in the operation. It’s difficult to isolate those employees: they’d need accommodations, and then those isolated rooms would need workers to accommodate them, and those workers would need workers to accommodate them, a tyranny of the rocket-style problem that would result in a huge isolation number. In all, that roughly doubles the number of rooms needed; so call it 6,000 hotel rooms in the greater Phoenix area.

How Would Isolation Be Maintained?
Okay, so now we have 3,000 hotel workers who have consented to be isolated for up to four months without their families. Presumably they’re being paid handsomely for this, but in any case, let’s just assume this step happens. You can’t live in a hermetically sealed bubble; food and supplies have to come in, and players and personnel have to travel from hotels to stadiums and back.

The travel aspect is doable. Charter bus dimensions vary, but on average, they’re 40 feet long and eight feet wide. You could maintain a safe six-foot distance while fitting ten players and a driver into a bus. With a team complement of 80, that’s 8 buses per team, plus another five per field for stadium personnel, camera crews, and umpires. Round up 300-ish buses in the Phoenix area, and you could handle transportation. Of course, those 300 drivers would need accommodations, and then those rooms would need people to service them, so tack on another 500 or so rooms.

Feeding all these people would require a solid logistical chain. If we assume there are 7,000 adults and 1,000 children to feed, that works out to something like 15 million calories a day — potentially more given that 1,500 of the people will be professional athletes. If you stick to calorically dense foods like beans, that’s nearly five tons of food a day. You’ll need meat too, which might bring it up near six tons a day — maybe seven tons after substituting in vegetables and fruit.

How big of an undertaking is delivering seven tons of food a day? Not huge, really. A single 18-wheel truck could handle the hauling, and a crew of five or six could manage the loading and unloading. What’s more difficult is the logistics: if a delivery can’t be made for some reason, the isolated players and hotel staff can’t exactly walk to a nearby grocery store and grab a few dozen eggs to scramble. Redundancies, and emergency food, would be important; this plan won’t work if there’s a chance of a week-long interruption of food transport. It’s a solvable logistical problem, but a potentially difficult one given the general lockdown the country is in.

Can Arizona Handle This?
Arizona COVID hospitalizations are projected to peak in late April and taper throughout May. In other hard-hit areas, hotels are being repurposed to serve as housing or hospitals. With over 28,000 hotel rooms in the Phoenix area, there will probably be enough spare capacity to handle baseball. But there might not be the logistical capacity to supply them, or the medical capacity to test players every day.

On a slower timeline, with games restarting in June or July, it’s possible that resources will be less stretched. One key part of MLB’s plan is the widespread availability of testing, an eventuality that still feels far away at present. In fact, the headline of this story, a potential May start, feels more or less impossible. If you assume it might happen later in the year, it’s at least worth considering.

As a prerequisite, then, Phoenix-area cases will need to be on a downward trajectory. Mounting a project like this when there’s still a possibility of city infrastructure being overrun by COVID hospitalizations introduces too many unknowns into the equation. MLB might be able to handle the logistical challenges of staging the games, but doing so without government backup and approval is needlessly risky, and morally icky.

Would Non-Baseball Employees Do This?
Even if the area caseload is manageable, Phoenix will likely be under some form of social distancing or shelter-in-place regulations while this plan takes place. It’s one thing to ask highly-paid players to live in a hotel for four months; it’s another entirely to do the same for minor leaguers, game day personnel, and hotel workers.

At a bare minimum, some form of hazard pay seems necessary. Committing to isolate yourself for a baseball season, particularly if you have a family, is a huge deal. If we assume that the player’s union won’t accept a plan that doesn’t protect them as much as possible, the only way forward is to pay everyone enough to make it worth their while. This is probably a solvable problem given the scale of the operation and the money at stake in baseball’s TV deals, but it’s worth considering. No hotel workers, no baseball.

More broadly, this underscores something that’s often left unsaid. Baseball isn’t society — but like society, the shiny headliners aren’t functioning unassisted. To put on a production where two teams of nine players throw and hit a ball around a grassy field, you need armies of workers behind the scenes. Those jobs are every bit as important to making the whole operation hum as the players are.

How Would The Baseball Work?
To be clear, I think the above logistical problems are nearly insurmountable. To get this to work, you’d need a large level of government cooperation. Per MLB’s statement, they still haven’t asked for that cooperation, or even approval:

But let’s assume, for the rest of this article, that all these problems are solved. Our small village of baseball players and hangers-on is going to play games. How would those games work? Would there be enough fields?

This seems like the least of baseball’s problems. There are 10 spring training stadiums in the area, all of which have workable dimensions. Chase Field’s roof would allow for doubleheaders (likely with different teams in the early and late game), with one game in primetime on the East Coast. Arizona State’s Phoenix Municipal Stadium is well-equipped to handle a big league game. Grand Canyon University, also in Phoenix, has a big league caliber park. Papago Park Baseball Complex has a suitable field. Kino Sports Complex in Tucson is scheduled to hold WBC qualifiers next year, and one or two fields there could host major league games, and the University of Arizona’s Hi Corbett Field would work in a pinch as well.

While there are enough stadiums, timing the games around heat would be challenging. The AZL moved to night games only, and the Arizona Fall League played only night games in September. Arizona is far hotter in the summer; the average high temperature in June, July, and August exceeds 100 degrees. Playing in the middle of the day is virtually impossible.

To handle this, the league might host a few morning games, two games in Chase Field that are optimized for East Coast viewing hours, and could even explore playing games in State Farm Stadium, a domed football stadium, if East Coast viewing times are a dealbreaker. Regardless of the exact configuration, there are enough stadiums to handle all the teams.

What About Testing?
More difficult than the facilities would be the COVID-related precautions. Players and workers would need to be extensively tested well in advance. An initial 14-day quarantine would likely be necessary — the odds that at least one of the 8,000-ish people involved in this undertaking is currently sick are certainly higher than 0%, and there’s not much point in isolation if you don’t start with a clean bill of health.

From there, you’d still want daily temperature checks and a good deal of COVID-19 testing. It’s one thing to test the players — a temperature-based check on each bus plus random antibody testing would probably do the trick. But you would also need to test every person tasked to work there, and you might need a reasonable security force to make sure your isolation actually works. The temptation to sneak out to see friends or family would be enormous.

Even if there are some token distancing norms inside this baseball bubble — players six feet apart on the buses, taking wide berths around others in hallways and at the gym — one sick person in a closed circuit could lead to a lot more sick people very quickly. Making sure no one exits and then re-enters without being tested would be important, whether via a physical security force or through some form of electronic location-tracking. Either choice would be invasive, but having some form of quarantine enforcement seems necessary.

Is It Worth It?
I mean, honestly, no? There are worlds where it makes sense; when we have widespread access to testing, for example, some of the logistical hurdles get easier. That would allow the hotel employees to leave isolation; if they could simply be tested before every shift by a test with a low enough false negative rate, that would make things much easier.

If the state and federal government weren’t overburdened by responding to COVID, they could allocate more resources to help everything run smoothly. Having dedicated medical personnel would be a huge boon to the operation. And there really is something to be said for the inspirational quality of sports; having baseball on TV is valuable, and it’s the sport best suited for a quick return, both in terms of physical separation and the amount of content produced — golf, for example, requires less physical contact but doesn’t crank out nearly as much programming.

But without better testing, and without the cooperation of thousands of non-baseball staff and employees, the whole operation is simply too complex. This plan might be worth revisiting when the peak of the curve has passed and society is on its way towards recovery and reopening. Baseball is one of the easiest sports to restart; if a player tests positive for COVID shortly after getting it, there’s a decent chance that they won’t have spread it to any other players via game actions. That certainly isn’t true for basketball, hockey, football, or soccer.

Until then, however, it’s merely wishful thinking. I’m glad that MLB is considering plans for getting baseball up and running. But in this case, I’m also glad that they haven’t nailed down any specifics or committed to any timeline, because this plan feels unworkable to me until the facts on the ground change.

This article has been updated to reflect the projection that Arizona hospitalizations are expected to taper off throughout the month of May.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Dave Stewart
4 years ago

Baseball in Arizona didnt work for me.

Ruben Amaro Jr.
4 years ago
Reply to  Dave Stewart