You’ve got to admit, it’s an enticing thought, particularly at a time when the phrase “stir crazy” is practically a national slogan.
The idea was put forward late Monday night in a mind-blowing ESPN article by Jeff Passan. The notion that Major League Baseball could be back as soon as May — that’s next month, folks — is enough to cause a spontaneous flurry of group hugs and high-fives.
If we were still allowed to do such things, that is.
But this possible plan floated by MLB — which likes to send out more trial balloons than the United States Weather Service — is rife with holes, wishful thinking, dangerous assumptions and unsolvable quandaries.
Beyond that, is it really wise to be putting so aggressive a timeline on baseball’s return at a time when the full scope of coronavirus’ devastation is still being felt?
As much as we all covet the return of live sports in general, public health is still paramount, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how this advances that cause. COVID-19 is not an illness that adheres to the calendar. We’ve already learned in painful fashion, as the reopening of various elements of society keep getting pushed back. To think we can control the timeline borders on recklessness.
To summarize Passan’s article: MLB would congregate all 30 of its teams in Arizona to play games in the 10 spring-training stadiums in greater Phoenix, plus Chase Field (home of the Diamondbacks) and possibly a couple of other presumably college stadiums. The season would begin after a two- or three-week spring training. Players would be sequestered in hotels for the duration of the season, tested frequently for the virus, and traveling only to and from the ballparks. Games would be played without fans.
In other words, it would be Biosphere Baseball, and players would be treated liked jurors in a high-profile case, secluded in isolation, or perhaps allowed to have their family in a quarantine setup. MLB sent out a news release Tuesday, in the wake of Passan’s article, stressing that it’s studying a number of scenarios and nothing is settled. But there seems to be enough smoke to think this plan is under strong consideration from both MLB and the Players Association.
According to Passan and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, they are working with federal officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who support the plan.
That’s encouraging. And I truly appreciate the ingenuity and boldness in some of the proposals. There’s a meme on social media when crazy things happen in a ballgame — #weirdbaseball. Well, this would be nonstop weird baseball — and I kind of like that. These are bizarre times, and they call for bizarre measures.
I have this mental image of a manager and umpire engaged in a heated argument, but rather than being of the classic nose-to-nose variety, they’re yelling at each other from six feet away. Such an arrangement would have severely tested former Mariners manager Lou Piniella’s ability to kick dirt on an umpire from long range.
Ideas being floated include miked-up players; the use of robo-umpires to call balls and strikes so the home-plate ump could set up a safe distance behind the catcher; no mound visits whatsoever; players spreading out in the stands, rather than using a dugout, to foster social distancing; lots of doubleheaders, with those games limited to seven innings; and rosters expanded to as many as 50 players because of the compacted schedule, the oppressive heat in the Phoenix area in the summer, and the possibility of players contracting the coronavirus.
I’ll be charitable and say this movement for an accelerated return of baseball is not entirely driven by greed, though certainly both players and owners are eager to get the revenue flowing again. There is something to be said for sports being used in its traditional role as a diversion and rallying point in times of crisis — an opportunity it hasn’t been afforded under the unique circumstances of the coronavirus.
But therein lies the rub. The idea that a couple thousand people — counting 50-man rosters, coaching staffs, television crews, and the variety of other personnel (including grounds crews and other stadium workers) that would be necessary for the staging of games — can be safely quarantined for 4½ months strains credibility. While players in their physical prime might be less vulnerable to the ravages of coronavirus, there are plenty of older managers, coaches, umpires and front-office staffers who are.
Though baseball is one of the most wide-open sports, and thus among the most conducive to being conducted during the pandemic, there is still considerable human-to-human contact. And all this is predicated on the notion that widespread testing would be readily available very soon. We’ll see about that. I haven’t even mentioned average temperatures in Phoenix of 104 in June, 106 in July and 105 in August — far from ideal conditions for playing 150-plus games.
Believe me, I’m as eager for sports to return as anyone else — probably more than most, given my profession and my lifelong love of the sport. But I want to make sure that when it does come back, it’s at a time and in a fashion that’s safe and sensible.