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MLB begins to contemplate its return

Well, this is interesting.

Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May and has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Though the plan has a number of potential stumbling blocks, it has emerged above other options as the likeliest to work and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials, sources said.

The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the greater Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.

The May return date depends on a number of concerns being allayed, and some officials believe a June Opening Day could be more realistic, sources said. Most important would be a significant increase in available coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time, which sources familiar with the plan believe will happen by early May and allow MLB’s testing to not diminish access for the general public.

While health officials see MLB players as low-risk candidates for COVID-19-related issues because of their age and health, putting protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of older managers, coaches, umpires and other personnel would be paramount to the plan working, sources said.

The logistics to pull off such a plan would be enormous and cumbersome on the league side and require the buy-in of players, who sources expect to be skeptical of separating from their families for an indefinite amount of time — perhaps as long as 4½ months, if the inability to stem the coronavirus outbreak keeps teams from playing in their home stadiums in 2020.

Still, there is hope among leadership on both sides that the combination of receiving paychecks for playing and baseball’s return offering a respite to a nation beset by the devastation of COVID-19 would convince players to agree to the plan, sources said.

[…]

While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said. The plan could include teams carrying significantly expanded rosters to account for the possibility of players testing positive despite the isolation, as well as to counteract the heat in Phoenix, which could grow problematic during the summer, sources said. The allure of more players potentially receiving major league salaries and service time would appeal strongly to the union, according to sources.

Both sides acknowledge the uniqueness of the season would not be limited to stadium location or roster size. Among the possibilities that have been discussed among people from both sides, though not in the talks on Monday, according to sources:

• Implementing an electronic strike zone to allow the plate umpire to maintain sufficient distance from the catcher and batter

• No mound visits from the catcher or pitching coach

• Seven-inning doubleheaders, which with an earlier-than-expected start date could allow baseball to come closer to a full 162-game season

• Regular use of on-field microphones by players, as an added bonus for TV viewers

• Sitting in the empty stands 6 feet apart — the recommended social-distancing space — instead of in a dugout

Each option, though far from certain, is likely to be bandied about in the coming days as the viability of the plan for everyone involved takes shape.

That’s a lot, and MLB has subsequently clarified that pretty much everything is still under discussion. A June start date may be more feasible, for one thing. I’m glad they’re willing to consider all kinds of outside-the-box ideas, and I’m glad that they are in discussion with the NIH and not just winging this, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this. I mean, if the goal is to avoid having no baseball at all in 2020 – which, let’s face it, is a real possibility – then this is the sort of thinking that will be required. Nothing is sacred other than the health of everyone involved. If that can be managed, then let’s make something work. I’ll be very interested to see where these negotiations go. Fangraphs has more.

UPDATE: The Ringer is dubious:

But one crucial element necessary for the enactment of any “Baseball Biodome”–style plan is missing from these early drafts. It’s the Maldivian resort workers waiting on one couple, trapped by someone else’s flouting of the COVID-19 danger.

Baseball games don’t just need players and coaches and umpires. They also need grounds crews. They need trainers. They need janitors and laundry workers and security, and clubhouse attendants and team chefs and equipment personnel. Team hotels need almost all of those people, too. And games will likely need some sort of scouting or front office framework, and media members. They’ll certainly need television crews on site—even if announcers might be able to call games remotely, camera operators and producers would have to penetrate the biodome—if the goal is to provide entertainment for the masses without fans in the stands.

Thus, two possibilities present themselves. Either all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers spread across 15 stadiums and numerous hotels in Arizona would come into contact with the otherwise completely isolated players and coaches, risking an immediate piercing of the COVID-free bubble, or else all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers would need to be sequestered as well, in which case the logistical nightmare would amplify exponentially.

Yeah, the sheer numbers involved make it seem much less likely to work. And of course, all these other people are paid much less, and thus have much less incentive to go along with this four-months-of-isolation idea. I don’t know how you make this all work. I still think it’s worth thinking about, but we can’t lose sight of reality.

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11 Comments

  1. Flypusher says:

    “ Yeah, the sheer numbers involved make it seem much less likely to work. And of course, all these other people are paid much less, and thus have much less incentive to go along with this four-months-of-isolation idea.”

    Pay them enough to make it worth their while, and you’ll get volunteers.

    I like the idea and I hope they can pull it off. I’m still not happy about the Astros’ cheating scandal, but that looks like a very small thing these days.

  2. C.L. says:

    I watched Ali vs. Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila, last night, followed by Ali vs. Spinks on ESPN. I find myself NOT missing 2020-era organized sports all that much these days…

  3. C.L. says:

    On another channel was Game 6 or 7 of the 1968 World Series…

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    An interesting idea, and if all teams play in one stadium, will there be games around the clock to allow all games to go on? It would be nice to see baseball start, but this might be even more surreal than no games.

    On the positive side, so far the US numbers have been better than the models predicted.

    C.L.–I agree, You Tube has channels for MLB, Formula 1, NFL, etc. that are posting a lot of older events. They seem better than today, not sure if it’s nostalgia or if sports were less money driven then or what. I’ve enjoyed watching the Dolphins thwart the Bears 1985 bid for a perfect season, Senna battling with Prost, among others.

  5. brad says:

    The first thing that came to mind for me was a memory of 1998 when I was driving back from Alaska to Texas in the summer time.

    I drove straight into Phoenix, after camping overnight somewhere 250 miles west of there, in order to hang out and catch a ball game at the new-ish Bank One Ball Park later that late after/early evening. I think it was an early start game.

    It was noon time-ish when I drove into downtown. I was freaked out because there was literally no one on the streets. It was like the biblical rapture and everyone was gone.

    I parked the car in order to walk somewhere to get lunch. When I opened the car door I was hit by a blast furnace of 115 degree dry heat.

    Good luck for those baseball players at the non air-conditioned MLB stadium whatever it is called now.

  6. C.L. says:

    Brad, the Diamondback’s Chase Field in Phoenix IS cooled….

    C’mon now…

  7. brad says:

    CL,

    I was talking about the non-Chase Field spring training complex fields/ballparks that are proposed for kick starting MLB games to be played on…

  8. David Fagan says:

    The first organized sports corporation to get out and start playing sports is going to be the one to take the wind in their sails and say it was them, the particular professional sports organization, that got everyone through everything. So I could see the rush to the gate, but do not believe the celebration is with any of the professional sports organizations. It will be with the children who are able to go back to school and with the university students continuing another year to graduate. It is with the doctors and nurses who know what they are risking and perform their tasks anyway to the best of their ability. If there were a marketing team behind these people then it would be these peoples’ names on jerseys, billboards, and tattooed on people’s arms.

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