It’s getting tedious and it’s about to get nasty. Like many other large businesses in North America, Major League Baseball has been blindsided by the pandemic and has had to shut its doors, as we know. The league has tried its best to stay relevant to fans with things like re-runs of important games in each club’s history on its dedicated MLB.TV and running video game tournaments between young players fans can watch… in place of actual games involving young and older players fans wanted to watch. It’s hard to fault the league, or commissioner Rob Manfred for it. As recently as when the gates to Spring Training camps swung open, about ten weeks ago, no one saw the corona virus coming and altering almost every facet of our everyday life and making ordinary people afraid to go to a food store, let alone crowded stadium. Hard to have a contingency plan for something nobody considered a realistic threat only weeks earlier.
That said, it’s time for baseball to do something. Things are getting ugly, fast. Players and owners are rattling sabers at each other and fans are fed up with the “hurry up and wait” approach the league has been taking. Yesterday the first of what will probably be a number of lawsuits was launched against all 30 teams, from fans wanting a class action suit. Their claim is that they bought tickets for games which either have already been missed or will not be played, but are not getting refunds for the worthless product. It’s hard to argue against them. the teams are essentially telling them “wait around… maybe we can get the season in and you can use the tickets later,” which would be a logistical nightmare anyway. Already hundreds of games have been canceled and if they somehow do get played, they’ll have to be made up on different days. If you had planned to see the Dodgers on April 15 against, let’s say Colorado, seeing the game made up in late-September might not fit your schedule.It’s not what you paid for.
As noted here last time, ideas have been floated around (even by noted scientist Dr. Fauci, who’s reaching a bit beyond his area of expertise) that a season could be played in one, or a very few locations, likely Phoenix, in empty stadiums with no fans and the players and staff all quarantined to prevent getting or spreading the corona virus. As I pointed out, this seems impractical at very best, given the numbers of people involved that would have to agree beyond the players and managers… coaches, trainers, broadcast crews and publicists, hotel staff, bus drivers. and on and on. the ones who’d benefit most financially, the players, are wary. Already Sean Doolittle , a member of the reigning champion Nationals has panned it loudly and now Mike Trout – the man the league has trying to build into a brand to singly sell the game in a way Wayne Gretzky did hockey – has said there are many “red flags” about the idea which he doesn’t like. If the “face” of the game says he’s not into the concept, it’s hard to imagine ordinary rank-and-file players accepting it enthusiastically.
And if they were to accept it, there’s still a huge canyon to bridge, as it turns out. The players’ union has agreed to allow players to play for a pro-rated part of their salary, based on games played. Ergo, if the schedule was reduced to 108 games (which is 2/3 of the originally planned season), players would agree to play and receive 2/3 of their contract… a player “making” $3 million would play the 108 games for $2M. Seems fair, and union boss Tony Clark says “the negotiation is over.”
Not in the eyes of the owners though. They want players to accept far less per game than contracted if games go ahead in empty stadiums, since revenue will be down. That according to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke on behalf of the Mets which is sort of an indication of how messy the whole situation is becoming.
The owner’s point is understandable. They expected to play their schedule in crowded – or at least somewhat inhabited – stadiums. According to Rob Manfred, 40% of all team revenue comes from gate tickets sales, program sales and in-park advertising. According to Statista, last year’s average ticket price was $32.99 for normal tickets, meaning that a “typical” team would potentially earn about $70M a year from tickets. Add in a few million more for box seats, concession stand shares and the like and you can easily see how teams with payrolls of $150M or so could come up $100M short on revenue. There’d still be TV revenue, and some merchandise sales but all in all, they’d be taking a hit. One can understand why they’d want some help from the players.
But likewise, the players too have a point. They signed in good faith expecting to be paid for playing. They probably presumed there’d be fans watching in the stands, but whether or not there are doesn’t effect that they would be providing the service they agreed to. It’s not hard to imagine they might want an added stipend since they would not be able to live in their normal homes and would have to forego a lot of their outside-work activities. The very last thing baseball needs is to come up with some “salvage the season” plan involving quarantine and empty stadiums and have the players promptly go on strike over wages.
Add in to the confused mix the fact that yesterday the league gave teams permission to lay off all non-player staff (including therefore all their coaches and training staff) as of May 1. Not something which will facilitate getting back to action any easier as these essential staff will be dispersed and doubtless in some cases, moved on to other employment.
The answer, as much as we fans hate it, is to A) shut down any idea of playing in empty stadiums and B) draw a line in the sand, of probably June 1. That would be the latest date to decide if there is to be a 2020 season. If it yes, and our fingers are crossed, things look good enough by then to think stadiums could reopen later in the summer, set a schedule beginning around July 4. A 100 game or so season could get fit in and still have the World Series played by mid-November. If alas, the pandemic is continuing to take its heavy toll and there are still significant numbers of new cases showing up, then folks, sad as it is, it’s time to say “we gave it the old college try” but we’ll pick this up again next year. Season over. And give fans back all their money… and maybe a cap or two to keep them thinking about the game til spring 2021, a time when hopefully covid19 will be just a bad memory.
I saw the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview on the stands (a grocery store one, actual bookstores being closed now for several weeks, needless to say) last week. It looked very thin. A much condensed version of its normal annual self, appropriate I suppose for a season which is bound to be a rather condensed and lesser version of a normal season. Why bother putting in a lot of time and effort, they probably figure, to prognosticate about a season that might not even take place?
Of course, this type of thing has to be weighing heavily on Rob Manfred and MLB. The Easter long weekend is all but upon us and, instead of having good crowds out in what’s seeming like an unusually warm spring in the East, with teams looking to get into the double digit win column, we’re still in a holding pattern. MLB TV is running re-runs of old games, and in some markets quickly running out of prime ones to air. One has to think if this keeps up much longer, we’ll start seeing headlines on their website like “See King Felix pitch five shutout innings before giving up two runs in 3-2 loss to Minnesota in meaningless summer 2012 game.”
That considered, one must realize that this pandemic has thrown us all for a loop – individuals and businesses alike. Speaking as a big fan who was looking forward to this 2020 season and a (hopefully) much improved version of my Blue Jays… I’d like to see the games begin. But I also have a lot of other things on my mind. Frankly I don’t spend a huge amount of time every day worrying about the season or speculating on how Toronto would be doing two weeks in. That kind of thinking probably worries Manfred and the owners more than imported novel viruses do. Which brings us to the latest internet rumor and buzz – starting the season up in Phoenix with all the teams in quarantine. The suggestion is that with 10 spring training sites in the metro Phoenix area and the Diamondbacks Chase Field, the entire schedule could be shifted, temporarily at least, to those sites with everyone quarantined and no fans in the stands. The season could begin fairly soon, and not only would fans be happy to get some baseball again, but MLB could capture the national spotlight in a time when organized sports are not taking place anywhere. NBA finals? Nope. Kentucky Derby? Nada. Olympics? Maybe next year. Baseball? Live from an empty field in Surprise, Arizona… How good would that be? Baseball could be the “national pastime” once again.
Someone – probably an Arizonan sports writer – suggested it, now MLB itself is looking at it. In their notice on Continency Plans this week, they say the league is “actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so”, elaborating “while we have discussed the ideas of staging games at one location… we have not settled on that option.”
Let’s hope not. Granted, there are positives to that idea. If they decided right now to go ahead with it, teams could perhaps assemble in the city and work out for a couple of weeks and begin play by the beginning of May. A season of over 120 games could be fitted in, although with no idea yet of how much of that would be limited to Arizona and when games could start in the other 29 big league stadiums.
However, there are problems galore well beyond the simple question of who wants to play games that count in empty stadiums?
The MLB statement clearly says play can commence when public health allows it. Clearly at this point, public health doesn’t. Corona virus is killing off scores of people in New York City and has impacted most MLB markets. Public gatherings are prohibited in most cities and discouraged by both scientists and governments all across the continent. Given the roster size, coaches and others needed, having a game would require violating the CDC and governmental recommendations against large public gatherings.
Everyone involved would need to be quarantined, crowded together in a hotel or two in a city that has been shut down with a “shelter in place” order like most of the rest of the country. In all likelihood, they’d not be able to go out besides practising or the actual games, and wouldn’t have much to be able to go out to even if they wanted to. Players tend to have a tendency to fall into one of two categories. There are famly men, married young guys, often with children who are all about that. And there are the playboys, or “playahs”, or whatever you would call them… young rich guys with flashy cars, thick wallets and lots of wild oats to sew. The ones who like to hit the trendy clubs after every game. Neither of those categories are likely to be happy, or even willing, to voluntarily shut themselves up by themselves in a hotel for an unknown period of time. A month? Two months? The whole season whatever that might be? No wife and kids when you get home. No hot gals in the nightclubs after the Saturday afternoon game. Not too appealing.
And consider the breadth of the problem; the numbers involved. This season teams were supposed to carry an enlarged 26 man roster. But with the late start and ideas for a heavier than normal schedule once it does begin, there’s been wide acceptance of the idea that they might be able to have bigger rosters (29 is often mentioned) for the first month or so at least. So, we’d need 30 teams of 29 players. But, of course, if an injury occurred, or a player was flubbing it, there’d be a need for potential backups. With the minors not in action either, teams would probably need to take along a number of players as backups…maybe their whole 40 man roster. Add in five or six coaches and managers per team and you’re quickly up to 1400 or more people. Add to that a few other staff like trainers and a skeleton crew of office personnel for each club plus umpires (enough for 15 games a day plus one or two subs no doubt), which would be another 70 or 75 men. Then, with empty stands, it would be extra important to have the games all televised or broadcast in some way. Each game might require four or five cameramen, at least, plus some technicians and an announcer or two. Chances are each team would want their own, so perhaps another 250 to 300 technical staff for that.
Then, since they would all be quarantined in hotels, there’s a need for the whole hotel staff – maids, room service people, cooks, you name it – who’d all also presumably need to be prevented from outside contact. Two hundred? Three hundred more? The suggestion would mean ultimately a couple of thousand people holed up together. All would need to be tested and healthy beforehand, and if even one somehow got sick and brought corona into the environment, it might require another lengthy and embarrassing shutdown of unknown length. Not to mention things like if a player had a minor injury that might shut them down for a couple of days normally, but required a doctors visit, would they be forced to go on the DL and self-isolate elsewhere for 15 days? What if a player tested positive but wasn’t showing any symptoms at all? Dr. Fauci suggests up to half the people infected might be asymptomatic and able to go about day-to-day life unhindered, all the while spreading the disease. Imagine a scenario where say Mike Trout felt fine but failed a corona test and the Angels being told they couldn’t use their superstar for over two weeks when he was capable. Any number of bad scenarios exist.
One more factor is that right now, with all that’s going on… maybe fans aren’t on the edge of the seat to get the season going right off. If they had a ball game and nobody came…fans might not necessarily buy into the idea of games taking place that they couldn’t go see and (with the exception of the D’backs) would all be road games really. It wouldn’t be a big money-maker for the league and could actually build up ill will. Particularly if the virus somehow entered the baseball biome and started endangering either star players of innocent hourly workers serving them there.
Yes, it’s a drag. So too is having your favorite restaurant closed, or not being able to browse the new releases with a Starbucks at Barnes and Noble, or having to try to home school high schoolers or seeing your employer shut down indefinitely. Or having loved ones die of a nasty pneumonia from some new alien disease… or any of the other terrible scenarios people are dealing with worldwide right now.
Yes it’s a drag, but suck it up baseball. Start the season when it’s safe for the fans to come out and cheer and feel cheery in all 30 ballparks. Whenever that might be.
A couple of weeks back I put out the suggestion of how the league could get in a 128 game schedule beginning on Memorial Day without too much difficulty if things went well. That now seems like wishful thinking. Things haven’t gone well and the virtual lockdown officially extends to the end of April nationwide now, into May in some counties and we’ve come to expect that will be added onto as well as the pandemic shows no signs of abating quickly. From which we can probably agree on several things.
First, that MLB was smart in retrospect to shut down spring training and postpone the regular season. They would’ve been forced to by various levels of government, but just by beating them to the punch by a week or so it may have prevented any number of new cases of Corona virus from spreading among the fanbase, the players and people totally uninvolved with the sport. Kudos to Rob Manfred and the various team owners for listening to the experts like the CDC and Dr. Fauci more readily than the president did. The first thing that we agree is that public health is far more important than baseball, or any other hobby or pastime right now.
Second, as much as we have to be willing to concede that baseball is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things with thousands of people dying already, it is also true that it could be an important emotional boost for millions of people. This is a sad time and its becoming increasingly difficult for ordinary people to stay positive and upbeat with all the sudden restrictions and economic worries the pandemic is causing. Sports and entertainment will actually gain added importance to us all in the coming weeks or month. For once movie stars and standout pro athletes may actually become real heroes in a small way. So, the second thing we can agree on is that it is actually important for MLB to do what it can to have a season and get underway as soon as it is safe to… although when that will be is anybody’s guess.
So it’s time for the people involved with the league to begin thinking in terms of “lines in the sand”… the most disruption we can put up with, or otherwise, the minimum that would be acceptable or logical to agree to in this sure-to-be strange and shortened season. Some have already been doing so publicly. Agent Scott Boras recently proposed a full 162 game schedule beginning in June sometime and running into November, with the post-season being played in December at mainly “neutral” sites – ie, cities with domed stadiums or in southern California to prevent the probability of games taking place in snow or sub-freezing conditions in outdoor parks like Minneapolis or Chicago’s. The suggestion also included a large number of double headers, perhaps weekly, to get the games in. I thought it might be unrealistic in my suggestion to recommend two doubles per team, so it’s encouraging that a players’ agent might suggest that players would be willing to do a bit extra to make the season happen.
I thought the suggestion of his was poor. No one really wants to be watching the World Series over Christmas dinner, nor would say, Twins fans want to see their team go to the World Series only to have home games played in San Diego or Toronto. But…I also think, there is no possible good solution that will leave everyone happy, so we should be open to considering his ideas.
To me the basic lines in the sand would probably be these: 1) minimum 60 game schedule, 2) basic integrity of schedule be preserved, 3) All Star Game not be rescheduled, 4) no added teams put in post-season, 5) we have a World Series champion by my birthday…which is November 30, and 6) important rules of baseball stay rules of baseball. I’ll elaborate.
Boras would like 162 games as per usual. So would I, so would most fans and from a box office perspective, I’m sure all the clubs. But it’s not gonna happen. The absolute best case scenario would involve the season beginning around the end of May, which would mean most teams would have lost 55-60 games. Definitely some could be made up by running later into the fall, skipping some off days, adding in a few double headers, but it’s not reasonable to think nearly five dozen could be squeezed in without lengthening the season into Santa time. I’d say 140 is the absolute max that we could even hope for now, and that’s with an optimistic return to the turf sometime in May. If the pandemic drags on into summer, as many experts say likely, getting in much more than half a season’s worth of games becomes sketchy. So at what point do we have to say “sorry- see you next year?”
To me, 60 seems like about that number. That’s less than half a regular season, but at least would make for about two months of regular games for teams to show what they’ve got and the talent to really sort itself out. As much as I love baseball, I think fewer than that would be rather pathetic and also likely to create a sort of dumb-luck crapshoot. If there were only say, 30 games total, suddenly a terrible team that got hot for one week could win a division and we might have a Jeimer Candelario win the home run title because of one career game (“wow, six homers- what a year!”). It would be rather meaningless.
Secondly, let’s make sure we do have a season if they’re going to play. Obviously fewer games means fewer games against each opponent and possibly, in less than ideal compromise, might even mean some teams wouldn’t play some others within the ir own league… it could be tough to fit in series against all 14 other teams plus a few interleague ones in a 64 game sched, for instance. But I want to see some semblance of a normal schedule played, with games against each divisional rival; with home and away games. I’m not interested in some big “round robin” playoff whereby the post-season is the only season and every team is somehow plopped in.
The All Star Game is like the necklace on a plain blouse on a lady. A nice accessory that we like but isn’t necessary at all. Still, as I suggested last time, if we can get in about four months of ball, let’s have it take place. Some have suggested that it might be a good opening day for the season… tough to pick the worthy players if they hadn’t played at all, but not a terrible suggestion to kick off the year with pomp and ceremony. I’d be OK with that, but not with moving it. If we can’t begin playing regular games until after mid-July, let’s concentrate on the games that matter and not shut down the season for days to have an All Star Game in September… especially when one considers the amount of planning L.A. has gone to to prepare for this year’s in July.
If we are looking at the reality of shortening the season, it seems like it makes no sense to think about lengthening the playoffs. Ask an ardent NBA or NHL fan about their interest level in their five to six week marathon playoffs after their own team’s been eliminated. Believe me, as someone coming from “hockey country”, it is not high. So go with the regular post-season format, or if the season’s really compressed, cut it back a little. Again not ideal, but if we’re working with a half-season, say, it might not be the worst idea to cut a round out of the playoffs to get them done faster. Maybe the wildcard would be a one game between the two division winners with the lesser records, and winner would go against division winner with best record in their league. It might add to the excitement and get things done two weeks sooner (which could remember, become an issue …players like Clayton Kershaw have already warned against the idea of playing into the winter as most players are conditioned to have at least two months off to recuperate before spring training.)
Last but not least, let’s keep baseball baseball as we know it. Now, I would be fine with the idea apparently already agreed upon to add to the roster early in the season to allow a few more pitchers and bench players (as pitchers particularly, might not be in mid-season, 6 or 7 inning form when they go back without having another six weeks of Spring training part II). But for me, that’s it. Let’s play baseball.
This comes to mind because one Texas report, unconfirmed I add, says that people within the Rangers organization are reporting that Rob Manfred sees this as a great opportunity to play with the fundamentals of the game, like playing 7-inning games instead of 9, and not only having phantom base runners appear out of nowhere to begin extra innings, but having only two outs instead of three in those innings. To which I say … well, I’ll be polite here and suggest I’d say something to the effect of something that might fall from a male cow. Baseball is nine inning games, three outs in an inning, runners on base because they got a hit or walked, no games decided by rap contests between outfielders. No, Mr Manfred hasn’t suggested that one… yet.
Well, that’s my dismal assessment of what we can and should hope for in baseball this year. What are your lines in the (first base line) sand?
This is about when I normally would begin posting my outlook for the year ahead and predictions for standings. Normally. What a pleasantly quaint and welcoming word these days when we are left to wonder what the new “normal” is going to be… or when.
Of course, two things are obvious to the baseball fan. One is that the cancellation of half of Spring Training and the postponement of the regular season sucks. Like Mark Shapiro of the Blue Jays front office said, upon hearing of the delay of Opening Day, “I had a moment where selfishly I was pretty sad and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! There’s great things happening. I want to continue to watch these guys playing.”
Great things indeed. Toronto was sitting at 12-6 with two ties, behind only Philadelphia for the best spring record (Washington, last year’s champions were sitting at a dismal 6-11 for what its worth) and leading the Grapefruit League with 120 runs scored, or 6 per game. Their run differential was +25, behind only the Dodgers and Phillies. Last year’s Gold Glove candidate catcher who couldn’t hit, Danny Jansen, was hitting over .500 (!) and Matt Shoemaker, who was looking like an ace last year til he broke his knee in April, was looking like an ace once again. And on an on.
But Shapiro continued, “I caught myself after about 30 seconds” and that “our immediate concern should be the health and safety of our fans, players and staff.” And that’s the second thing that is obvious to us now. Something we’re all coming to realize in a time when suddenly lineups at grocery stores full of empty shelves, empty restaurants and no public entertainment events of any sort are becoming routine.
By now, it seems sadly appaent there is no way we can get in a regular 162 game season in this season. Here’s my Best Case Scenario Suggestion, based on the concept that we’ll be able to get this new virus more or less corralled and under control within weeks here, rather than months.
The CDC suggested on the weekend that all events with more than 50 people be canceled for 8 weeks. That would take us to about May 9. Theoretically, MLB could then kick off the 2020 season, if things have cleared up by then.
However, with the restrictions in place, transportation becoming iffy and spring training camps mostly been shuttered, that would mean more than that – about 9 weeks- since players last played. It would be like mid-February all over. Players would need to get in a bit of training, and then need to play a handful of games still to get back up to speed and for the GMs to assess final roster moves.
So let’s say things are fine by May 9. My suggestion of a realistic, but accelerated schedule could look like this.
May 10-11: players return to Spring training camps (Florida and Arizona locations would be best, to facilitate easy transit for training games).
May 12-16 : players work out vigorously
May 17-23: spring training games, 7 per team.
May 23: teams finalize rosters
May 24: travel day
May 25 – Memorial Day. 2020 season begins, with all teams beginning to play.
July 14 – All Star Game in LA, as scheduled, but with only 13th, 14th off (ie games begin again on 15th, not 17th).
October 15 – 128 game schedule finishes, on a Friday night.
October 16-17 – wildcard games played this weekend
October 18-23 – division series
October 25 – November 2 – championship series
November 4 – 12 – World Series. Game 7, if necessary on Thursday night.
The 128 game schedule would consist of 12 interleague games per team, 6 games against each team in their own league but not division and 14 games each against divisional rival. In addition, to accelerate the schedule, each team would host one double-header during the season, (meaning 63 home dates instead of 64) perhaps on two league-wide Fan Appreciation Days. Also, road trips/homestands would be longer… generally 9-12 games at a time, to reduce numbers of travel days off.
Is that ideal? No, far from it. A normal 162 game schedule would be close to ideal. It would be odd to have an All Star game take place when teams have only played around 40 or so games a piece. Players won’t like a number of 10-12 game road trips (though they will be balanced with home stands of the same duration); owners won’t like having even one less home gate in an already abbreviated season. Questions will need to be debated and argued no doubt, over things like players’ service time (we would hope that if the schedule is 128, players on roster would get credit for full-season after 128 games), pay and so on. a shortened playoff timeframe would mean up to World Series, most days more than one game would be going on. And even with this sched, we’re potentially seeing mid-November baseball. By mid-November, overnight lows average below freezing in Minneapolis and snow can be flying in Denver so there’s a good chance that some games in places like those, or Chicago, or Cleveland, will be played in crappy un-baseball-like weather.
Is it ideal? No. But it might be the very best we can hope for now, for 2020.