Late Monday evening, ESPN’s Jeff Passan published a stunning story about a potential plan to start the 2020 Major League Baseball season — which has been halted by the spread of COVID-19 — by “as early as May.”
Per Passan’s sources, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association are working on a plan that has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials, “who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
That plan would force all 30 teams to relocate to the Phoenix valley to play games at the 10 spring-training facilities, Chase Field, which is the Diamondbacks’ home field, and possibly other fields.
Every team’s players — likely the whole 40-man roster — big-league coaching staffs and other key personnel would be remanded to local hotels during non-baseball time and live in isolation while going to and from the stadiums for games.
Passan reported that “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.”
That a plan this unprecedented is even being discussed in detail reveals just how difficult the environment is in this country, and that the MLB and the MLBPA fear the 2020 season might be lost.
Major League Baseball released a statement Tuesday addressing the report:
“MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so. While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.
While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association. The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”
That statement doesn’t directly dispel Passan’s reporting.
And many folks around baseball believe officials leaked the plan to float a test balloon to measure public reaction and perception as well as players’ reaction, because they aren’t in these discussions.
And while the premise of the plan seems to fall somewhere between unique and absurd and the list of logistical issues that need to be solved is longer than a Nelson Cruz upper-deck homer, there remains one thing that could push it into fruition.
The amount of money being lost by the league, its teams and the players could be the great motivator to approve such a stunning plan.
MLB is a $10 billion-a-year business, and it’s hemorrhaging money without games. Owners are generating no revenue from games not being played. Many own their own regional sports networks, from which no ratings are being generated. And players are not getting their typical paychecks that were expected.
Beyond giving people a worthwhile escape during this awful time or the idea of trying to find a level of normalcy in a world that will never return to the way it was, the dollars involved matter most.
It’s why players would consider a four-month sequestration from families. For every multimillionaire, who also still has financial commitments, there are multiple players operating on the periphery of the roster, hoping to earn the prorated MLB minimum salary that would provide a year or two of financial security. It’s the players that aren’t wealthy and were relying on that first or second season of MLB money who would be motivated to agree to this plan.
The Mariners’ slew of young players, most with less than a full year of MLB service time, would likely jump at a return.
And if baseball were to keep the entire 40-man roster active, well that’s more players receiving MLB pay and accruing service time, which is something that would motivate the MLBPA.
While games would not have fans, negating the revenue generated from gate and concessions receipts, the premise of live sports being aired on television would lead to significant ratings for local affiliates and national networks, who have been reduced to playing reruns of old games and other canned/pre-recorded programming.
National television contracts are in place with FOX, ESPN, TBS and MLB Network, but those would likely have to be amended if additional games are nationally televised.
Also teams would have to agree on a revenue-sharing format for local television affiliates, because those totals are wide-ranging.
But the projected dollars generated from televising games in this time when there is no competing aspect must be significant enough for MLB to look at a plan that would forgo gate receipts — its largest moneymaker.
While money might be the ultimate motivator to get this deal in place, the concept of overall player health and operating within the confines of the guidelines to combat the spread of coronavirus would be the ultimate barrier to overcome.
As Passan notes, the biggest concern would be a major need for coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time. Those tests, which MLB would have to buy from private companies, could be available in May. If MLB’s testing were to hinder public testing, that would have to be put on hold. From an ethical and public-relations perspective, people in need of tests must outweigh the need for athletes, regardless of MLB financing it.
The other logistical issues of this situation in play might generate debate or even ire, but they are all solvable within reason.
- There must be a determination of roster size and staff limitations surrounding the team.
- The workout period — mini-spring training — leading up to games starting.
- The definition of sequestration for players and how it would be enforced.
- The issue of families being able to join players in Arizona would almost certainly arise.
- The protocols for a player testing positive and its effects would have to be finalized.
- Personnel outside the teams allowed to be on-site at games, including umpires, grounds crew, security, nonuniformed team and MLB staff and media.
- The number of games to be played — seven-inning doubleheaders are possible.
- The potential of other health risks — such as the sweltering summer heat, even at night — is a concern, though it should be a lesser one. You could probably play three games a day at climate-controlled Chase Field.
- Once the game starts, aspects such as player and coach distancing, forced wearing of masks, removing mound visits and the use of an electronic strike zone instead of a home-plate ump are being discussed.
At first glance, this entire scenario seems so far-fetched. There are so many reasons it wouldn’t work or wouldn’t get approved. The looming obstacle would be the unpredictability of a pandemic, the failed efforts to control its spread and the health risks it presents for all involved.
But the motivation, much of it being financial, is there for both sides.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures” is an overused cliché, but it seems all involved in baseball are now desperate to avoid the cancellation of the 2020 season.