It is natural to focus on dates and locations, but those were not the important part of last week’s ESPN report that MLB and MLBPA had met with CDC, HHS and other health care officials to discuss a path for MLB games' restart. The important part is that if those three stakeholders – MLB, MLBPA, and federal health officials - see a path, then who is going to stop the return of baseball?
This is not a negotiation between the MLB and MLBPA. They’re mostly aligned over trying to find their path to an enormous pot of money. Both will need to give up something dear to them. The owners will need to give up stadium revenues, because these games can’t be played in front of crowds. The players are going to need to give up their freedom, essentially being quarantined with their teammates and support staff for the duration of whatever constitutes spring training, the regular season and the postseason.
That’s an enormous ask, but the quarantine is to protect the players. The owners have no dog in that fight; they’re not the ones who are going to get sick. That concern is between health officials and the union, or maybe more accurately is an MLBPA internal matter between players who want a paycheck and those willing to walk away for a year.
Grandiose anti-plan media quotes don’t mean much in that context. One would get the same quotes if players were asked the flip side of the question: “So how do you feel about not getting paid?” Considering the minimum wage for a ballplayer is close to $3500 per game – and it obviously can be 50 times that for premier players – there is going to be a fair amount of appetite in accepting some separation from families. Plus, if that price is too high for some players to pay, there will undoubtedly be a provision for players to opt out.
We don’t know where the season is going to take place yet, but we know the more important part – it’s going to be localized so travel is minimized. That’s likely why Phoenix was the initial suggestion – all those spring training complexes are in one metro area. Everybody can sleep in their own heavily-controlled room each night.
Expanding half of the league to play in Florida is trickier. Florida’s Grapefruit League is more spread out. If the Fort-Myers-based Twins travel to the Clearwater-based Phillies (a three-hour drive) for a three-game set, the option is to travel six hours each day or find a quarantine-level secure place to stay in Clearwater. With the CDC concerned about the virus spreading from county to county, that may be too much for them to approve.
If that problem seems to be too much to overcome, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There are 20 problems like that. For instance, there is the support staff for the players: from coaches and trainers to bus drivers and cleaning staff. Won’t they need to be quarantined, too?
To handle all of those challenges and logistics requires a lot of resources– but there MLB and the MLBPA are in luck. Ten billion dollars are at stake, and roughly half of that goes to each side. The human mind has trouble imagining how much money that is, so engage in this quick mind exercise:
- Imagine you’re standing at one end of a football field. And along the sideline of that field is a bucket at every yard marker. 100 buckets.
- Now turn 90 degrees sideways, and there is another football field. Along its sideline are another 100 buckets.
- Now, extend those yardlines from both fields so they form a grid and put a bucket wherever they meet, so you have 100 buckets by 100 buckets or 10,000 buckets.
- Now look into one of those buckets. There is a million dollars. And that is the case for all 10,000 of those buckets. That’s $10 billion.
Need to pay $40,000 apiece to a hundred quarantined support people for each team for those four months? That’s 120 buckets gone. Still leaves 9880 buckets. Need to buy 100,000 coronavirus tests for $200 apiece? That’s twenty more buckets. Still have 9860 left.
Sure, there is a point where those buckets run out, but – well, that’s a lot of buckets. Plus, there is another reason to start spending those buckets to restart the season: for each game that is cancelled, for every day that passes that cannot be made up, sixty of those buckets disappear anyway.
That’s why both sides are looking at just how soon games can start, but now we get to the areas where the team has limited control or options. The one mentioned in the original story was how quickly fast-result coronavirus tests will be so ubiquitous that there can be enough for thousands of MLB participants to take them a daily basis. For issues like this, MLB must work on what they can control and trust that American (or world) industry, or health officials’ increasing understanding of the virus, will get over existing barriers. MLB and the players can influence the timeline, but not control it.
But does it matter to fans whether the games start on June 1st, July 1st or August 1st? Sooner would be better than later, but having a season is the important part. While it would be nice if it was 162 games and in front of crowds and played in traditional divisions and included 100% of the players – we’ll work with what we have. Baseball was played during World War II. The St. Louis Cardinals still celebrate that 1942 World Championship.
A 2020 season is not inevitable, but it’s on the right path. Stakeholders are aligned, budgets determined, logistics worked, and contingencies planned. The obstacles are many, but the resources are plentiful and motivations are clear. Announcing a date and a place are not the first step; they’re the last step in the process.
And yeah, I’m really encouraged by it, which calls into question my objectivity. So subjectively I’ll say: you’re going to get to watch baseball this year. And you’re going to love it, all the more because of what was done to get there.