This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.
Fauci Warns Against October Baseball
While the very existence of a baseball season remains up in the air, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Los Angeles Times that he would advise against playing baseball in October, salary dispute aside. “If the question is time, I would try to keep it in the core summer months,” he said, before specifically saying October is a riskier time to play.
“The likelihood is that, if you stick to the core summer months, even though there is no guarantee… If you look at the kinds of things that could happen, there’s no guarantee of anything. You would want to do it at a time when there isn’t the overlap between influenza and the possibility of a fall second wave.”
If avoiding October play is the goal, there isn’t much time left. A 50-game season and regular-length playoff schedule would need to start by the middle of July at the very latest, which already looks difficult given the current state of negotiations. It would also require renegotiation of postseason TV contracts, not exactly a quick process in regular times. It’s simply a further obstacle to getting baseball back on the field.
When it does come back, though, Fauci will be there. Of his hometown Nationals allowing fans at games in 2021, he said: “Unless you have a dramatic diminution in cases, I would feel comfortable in spaced seating, where you fill one-half or one-third or whatever it is of the stadium, and everybody is required to wear a mask in the stadium.”
Texas, Arizona, and Florida COVID Cases Spike
MLB has avoided a “bubble” plan, the type they initially pitched in March and that the NBA and NHL have taken up as a way to host postseason tournaments. That leaves baseball at the mercy of local infection rates, and three states, two of which are home to multiple teams, are headed in a troubling direction.
Texas and Florida, and Arizona, the site of MLB’s proposed bubble, all reported record numbers of new COVID cases this week. All three states are in the midst of reopening. This isn’t an isolated problem — Oklahoma, Oregon, and Nevada all hit new highs in the past week as well — but the three warm-weather states are likely part of baseball’s plan for fallback sites in the event of a fall second wave.
Hospitalizations are up in all three states as well, and the situation is looking grim in Arizona. “ICU to be expanded, hopefully, in coming days,” Dr. Steven Oscherwitz, an infectious disease expert at Tucson Medical Center, said on Monday night. “Not sure where people needing ICU care will be able to go, since most AZ (Arizona) hospitals are pretty full now.”
Florida’s positive test rate is spiking, a sign that the new caseload isn’t merely due to expanded testing but also reflects an increase in viral spread. Texas may be in better shape, though it’s early to say for sure — the positive test rate bottomed out in May and has been creeping slowly higher ever since. Arizona’s is near 20%, nearly triple the other two states. A dispute between MLB and the MLBPA might not be the only thing holding up the season at this point.
Players and Staff Test Positive
During Monday’s MLB media blitz, the AP obtained a league memo stating that several players and staff have tested positive for COVID. That’s hardly surprising — baseball has a tremendous number of employees, and the US has more than two million confirmed cases so far; it would be more surprising if no one affiliated with the league were infected.
Still, it’s a reminder that getting back to play doesn’t solely mean agreeing on a number of games. The league and the players association remain close on health protocols, but they’ll still face obstacles in any return to the field. Finishing the season with no new COVID cases seems unlikely, even without the increased risk that comes with traveling to play games.
US Open To Take Place On Schedule
While sports leagues worldwide work towards new protocols and plans for resuming play, Andrew Cuomo announced that the US Open will take place on schedule in Queens this August. Tennis draws its top competitors from across the globe, which makes this move unexpected to say the least — Wimbledon has been canceled for the year, while the French Open is currently scheduled for October and is making significant logistical changes including greatly cutting the number of players invited.
Tennis players aren’t universally excited about playing in Flushing. Ash Barty, currently ranked No. 1 in the world and a presumptive favorite, expressed concern about playing overseas — she’s an Australian citizen, and the country has been successful in fighting COVID. Novak Djokovic, the clear men’s favorite, was even more resolute. He told Serbian TV station RTS that most players he talks with “were quite negative” about playing in the US Open and that for him, “most probably the season will continue on clay (in Europe) at the beginning of September.”
Baseball won’t face the same logistical hurdles — few of tennis’ top stars reside in the United States. But it’s a reminder that merely saying sports will be played doesn’t make it a picnic for the players, and doesn’t ensure that everything will go off without a hitch. Tennis is already back in the form of an exhibition currently being played in France features several top 10 players, with an extremely spread out schedule and a small field. But staging a mega-event like the US Open will be difficult, even with the state’s backing in making it happen.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.