Staring down the incomprehensible collective profit loss that a cancelled season would entail, MLB and its Players Association have been hard at work trying to hammer out a salvage scenario. The latest reported example would call for a radical realignment of league structure, based on spring training site geography, and would have Minnesota playing in a "Grapefruit League South" division with Tampa, Atlanta, Boston, and Baltimore.
The sheer logistical hurdles of making something like this happen, in a way that ensures player and public safety, are monumental. Stephanie Apstein's recent writeup for Sports Illustrated, Bursting the Bubble: Why Sports Aren't Coming Back Soon, spells it all out in sobering terms. She spoke with top scientific experts and arrived at a grim conclusion.
The bottom line: Many of these ideas sound good in theory, but when you really think through the litany of practical implications, it's almost impossible to envision any of them working.
From my view, the only way for something to actually materialize, as currently discussed, would be a broad public movement toward laxening protective measures. Or, for extreme exceptions to be made specifically for Major League Baseball. Given the economic and financial factors at play, neither of these things is out of the question. Personally, I don't see it.
But let's say one of them gives. Or, a plan is architected that covers every contingency, and gains approval from public health authorities and all parties involved. One really must ask themself: If manufacturing a season requires warping the league's very fabric, and forcing players to perform (with future earnings on the line!) under these incredibly awkward circumstances, while unavoidably creating public safety concerns ... is it really worthwhile?
Some fans will say, sure. I get it, and I've certainly had my own internal debates. I'm as desperate for the return of baseball as anyone, I assure you.
But then I start thinking about the actual act of watching games played in empty spring training stadiums, against faux division rivals, in a condensed and warped season schedule. Players hitting home runs and silently rounding the bases, before returning to the plate where they're unable to high-five in celebration.
I think about the notion of these results – and whatever champion is crowned – having legitimacy in the historical record of the game. Not just that, but many players having their careers completely altered and upended by the process.
To date, there has been one major-league game played before a completely empty stadium. It was in Baltimore on April 29th, 2015, amidst a tumultuous time for the city. Earlier that month, Freddie Gray died while under police detainment, sparking riots and unrest that consumed all security and police resources required to run a traditional pro sporting event.
Dan Hayes, the current Twins beat writer for The Athletic who covered the visiting White Sox back then, tweeted the other day: "I was at that game as a reporter. It was awkward. Players will not want to play in that environment. You hear everything."
While the current situation is obviously very different in nature, this reflective quote from former Sox outfielder Adam Eaton (via Chicago Tribune) about participating in the game rings now with a very acute relevance: "There was a lot of weight on your heart because of what was going on in the city ... I guarantee everybody in this clubhouse at the time and over there was like, 'We have to play this game, but at the same time, there are bigger struggles going on, and baseball is not the biggest focus.' … It was a very, very weird feeling."
It's true that MLB now has the advantage of being able to plan and build for this type of setup, but clearly there are "very, very weird" dynamics in place as a global health crisis ravages the world and death counts escalate.
I'm sure many people reading this disagree on fundamental premise – either because the prevailing science and projections regarding COVID-19 are overblown, or because the need to return to a societal norm outweighs the unchecked impact of the virus. I'm not saying either of those viewpoints is wrong. I don't know.
Plenty of major-leaguers, eager to get back to playing and earning paychecks, lean that way, no doubt. But not all of them do. And more pertinently, not all are keen on uprooting their lives, separating from their families, and subjecting their career legacies to this strange scenario in the name of making more money. Many of the game's biggest stars (and consequentially its most financially secure) are in that group, I'd wager.
Without the stars, it doesn't work. In fact, without virtually EVERYONE, it doesn't work. And that's where the practicality eludes me. Anyone participating would need to to opt in; this isn't like a typical MLBPA decision where members must follow the will of consensus and leadership. There are explicit dangers and substantive sacrifices involved. What happens when (not if) the first player – like, say, Brewers starter Brett Anderson, who tweeted "It begins and ends right here" of the clause that requires indefinite separation from families – takes a hardline stance? Dominoes will fall.
In a recent article for ESPN, reporters asked a wide variety of players around the league for their input on these proposals, and to a man, nearly everyone expressed strong skepticism if not blatant opposition. A few samplings:
- "When I think about being isolated for four to five months without being able to see my family, I don't think that would go through at all, personally."
- "Honestly, my reaction would be I'm not OK with being separated from my family in the middle of a pandemic."
- "You get into these certain scenarios just to play, and then at the end of the day, is it worth it?"
- "Are you gonna put people at risk just so you can be kings of the sports world for a couple of months?"
- "It just seems like a lot of stuff. I mean, I love the game, but you're changing it too much. Everyone is trying to make money."
- "I think it's an absurd proposal. If that's literally what it's going to take to start the season, then I don't see how it's happening."
It seems clear that portrayals of robust union support for the avenues being discussed are overstated, as affirmed by one union source in a story on NBC News, who said, "We listened. But the idea that we had embraced that plan is totally inaccurate."
Perhaps universal participation is not required to proceed with one of these proposals, but again, the idea of playing meaningful games with missing pieces becomes highly problematic. Is it really an MLB season if there's no Mike Trout? What if one team has a disproportionate number of players withdraw? How is it fair to them or their fans to weigh these results and outcomes as legitimate?
Taking everything into account, I'll close by circling back to my introductory contention, which hopefully offers a glimmer of optimism: "If Major League Baseball is going to have any kind of season in 2020, it needs to be a novelty exhibition."
While I see no path to conducting a season of record, the Florida/Arizona sideshow ideas become far more plausible if we treat them like a World Baseball Classic style exhibition tournament. Players can individually opt in (and maybe almost all of them will!), but with the understanding that this unique season, and their performances within, will not be imprinted in Major League Baseball's rich historical tapestry.
The lessened need to adhere to the sport's stringent procedures, along with fewer participants reducing the scale, makes such a proposition far more viable in my eyes. Still a stretch, for the reasons covered in Apstein's piece for SI, but more viable.
If you ask me, that's now where we should be setting our sights as hopeful fans, yearning for baseball's beautiful distraction. I take zero pleasure in saying so, but the notion of a 2020 MLB season worthy of adding to the official record is already off the table.