Part of the beauty of baseball, we’re told, is that it’s a timeless game. The season seems to last forever. There’s no game clock (although there now is a pitch clock). And teams can play 20 innings or more until one wins.
But that ticking noise you hear is the countdown toward the point in which baseball’s powers that be may have to wave the flag on the entire 2020 season.
The major leagues are trying their darndest to figure out a way to play half a season and avoid huge financial losses—$75 million per day, according to an ESPN report. They may succeed, but the long-suffering fans of Fredericksburg who have been anxiously anticipating a minor-league team of their own to support are likely to have to wait until 2021. Sorry.
We’ve already missed six weeks of games, and teams are still weeks away from beginning a second “spring training.” If coronavirus cases spike as states reopen their economies—a very real possibility—it could send us all back to quarantine all over again. And an expected second surge (along with the usual flu season) could come during the playoffs this fall.
Even if that doesn’t happen, there are so many obstacles and logistics to overcome just to produce a version of the sport that won’t seem normal to most fans.
Major League Baseball recently released a 67-page manual of proposed safety protocols for a return to action sometime around July 4 without fans in the stands. They include virus and temperature testing for all personnel, virtually no contact between players and the immediate disposal and disinfection of any ball put in play. Players would be discouraged from showering at the ballpark.
Just like the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup, there are plenty of holes in the proposal.
Anyone who tests positive would face a seven-day quarantine—not 14 days, as health experts recommend. MLB reportedly didn’t consult local health officials in formulating its plan. That’s a problem, considering major league baseball is played in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia and Canada, all of which have different rules.
Not surprisingly, not everyone is on board.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell has been the most outspoken critic, insisting he won’t take a pay cut to risk his health during a pandemic. That earned him some national scorn, but the Phillies’ Bryce Harper (no stranger to controversy) agreed with Snell.
Nationals ace Max Scherzer raised a logical concern about trainers risking spreading the virus as they treat multiple players. Even Mike Trout, baseball’s best and least controversial player, has said he plans to attend the birth of his first child this fall and wonders how long he’ll have to quarantine before he’s allowed to return.
Let’s be clear: Anyone who cares about sports wants them back as soon as safely possible. We’re all stir crazy, and unless you’re a NASCAR fan, you’re starving for something new to watch now that “The Last Dance” is over. I can’t watch televised cornhole competition.
But even if all goes right with baseball’s plan, the version of the sport that we’d get would seem strangely antiseptic: no high-fives or lineup cards, few stolen base attempts (to avoid contact) and virtually empty dugouts. (Reserve players would sit six feet apart in the stands.)
And we haven’t even mentioned rows upon rows of empty seats.
Baseball took a publicity pounding in 1994 when a labor dispute wiped out the World Series. The sport’s leaders swore not to let that happen again and made the game more fan-friendly—which led to the steroid era. Billionaire team owners and millionaire players now say they don’t want to look greedy as they negotiate during a pandemic.
But this is different. It was baseball’s bad luck that the pandemic hit just as exhibition games were getting started. The challenges of staging even an abbreviated season seem daunting and dangerous.
We’re all rooting for baseball. But as painful as it seems to say, unless the circumstances improve dramatically over the next few weeks, it might be best to keep the bats and gloves stored away until 2021.