Major League Baseball’s return-to-play strategy appears to be crumbling, and if changes aren’t made quickly, the entire regular season could fall apart with it.
The 2020 campaign is in jeopardy after baseball failed to get through a week of full games before the coronavirus began to spread. First, there was a full-scale outbreak in the Miami Marlins, and then positive cases in the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals organizations.
The number of infections reportedly prompted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to tell players’ association chief Tony Clark on Friday that the season could be called off if the outbreaks continued. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, several players have expressed concern that this could happen as early as Monday.
According to a joint MLB / MLBPA release on Friday, there were 29 positive cases out of 11,895 samples taken last week. Twenty of the positives were players, nine were staff and 21 were related to an undisclosed team, which is the Marlins. A total of 58 positive tests have been found since the start of the sampling process, affecting 19 out of 30 teams.
The growing number of cases meant that the full list of games expected on Friday was missing six teams, or 20% of clubs in the big league. The regular season, which began on July 23, has already seen 30 games postponed, some of which will have to be canceled outright, even if the schedule advances.
There was speculation in the weeks leading up to baseball’s return on the length of the season. After several controversial rounds of negotiations that failed to result in a deal with MLBPA, Manfred mandated a 60-game schedule. At the time, the number seemed low. As July draws to a close, it now seems overly ambitious, if not downright impossible.
“I don’t think there was a person who thought it would be transparent and thought we would run smoothly, unless different things happened with the virus,” said Blue Jays general manager Ross. Atkins, during a Friday morning availability with local reporters. “I think we all knew we were going to have to adapt and adjust. We’ll focus on what we can control… and do our best to stay safe. “
Thoughts of a competitively balanced program, or the integrity of a season, can be dismissed for now. It’s no longer about trying to emulate a normal year, but whether the season can even be recovered.
It’s impossible to predict where things will go from here. In early July, during an interview on the Dan Patrick Show, Manfred was asked what it would take to cancel the season. The commissioner referred to “competitive integrity” before saying if a team or two were decimated and couldn’t play “we’ll have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing.
Well, given that the Marlins are missing half of their squad, that has happened before. The dire situation in much of the United States has prompted countless epidemiologists to call for the cancellation, or at the very least postponement, of the regular season. MLB had resisted, but apparently that option is no longer off the table.
The Jays were due to be in Philadelphia this weekend. The opening of the series was postponed from Friday to Saturday before all three games were called off. So the Jays stayed in Washington looking for ways to stay busy until they faced the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday. It’s the 2020 season in a nutshell.
“We’re going to have a socially distant DC bus tour (Friday), we’ll be moving around the area to appreciate the history and culture of this area,” Atkins said. “We will have a training session on Saturday and Sunday. Most likely a simulated game to keep our pitchers on track and ready to get the ball rolling. We’re always talking about different ways to make the most of this time when we’re down.
The MLB’s best chance for a successful 2020 season would have been to adopt measures similar to those taken by the NBA and NHL. Both leagues have gone with bubbles, or center towns, which isolate players from the general population and eliminate the need for long distance travel.
This proposition was a non-starter in baseball for several reasons. The players were reluctant to be isolated for more than four months, including summer camp and the post-season. The ideal locations for the plate cities of Florida and Arizona, where teams have spring training facilities, were seen as hot spots, not only for disease but also for the climate with temperatures reaching the 30 superior.
The league had the opportunity to get creative using cities like New York or Los Angeles, which have multiple big league stadiums, but neither side seemed interested. Players wanted freedom, owners wanted to cut costs by playing at home, and just two weeks ago some teams were still talking about selling tickets later this summer.
It is too late to make drastic changes now. MLB has made its bed and needs to bed in it, but there are at least a few tweaks that could make this plan less complicated. A call for gamers to remain isolated in their hotels, similar to the Rogers Center quarantine, is long overdue. Testing should be done daily, instead of every other day, to best limit exposure.
There must also be a renewed commitment from the teams to follow the rules already in place. According to several reports, the MLB investigation found that Marlins players were going out into town and enjoying their hotel bar in Atlanta. Days later, when a small batch of positive cases were found, the players voted on whether they should play this Sunday afternoon against Philadelphia. They did it.
Get the latest news delivered to your inbox
Never miss the latest Star news, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters
The Marlins’ reckless actions and the resulting reckless decision to play not only allowed the disease to spread through their clubhouse, but put the Phillies at risk. And if you think everyone has realized the benefit of being careful, think again. After the Cardinals’ game was postponed on Friday, an anonymous player told Athletic’s Mark Saxon he still wanted to play on Saturday because they “can’t let this all fall apart.”
Unfortunately, it won’t be up to the players or the MLB; it will be virus. The spread can be somewhat contained if the proper protocols are in place, but the risks cannot be eliminated and the system will only be as strong as its weakest link. If everyone plays by different rules in different cities, this plan doesn’t stand a chance.