Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 9, 2020

One Big Question, No Easy Answer

Next comes the hard part. Having witnessed every major sports league on the planet suspend operations in a dramatic and ongoing shutdown the likes of which is without precedent, many fans will doubtless think the eventual task of starting up play again can’t possibly be more challenging than what has already happened. But the clear and present, albeit invisible, danger of the COVID-19 pandemic was so manifest the decisions to suspend seasons, cancel tournaments, and postpone events essentially made themselves. Commissioners, organizing committees and league offices weren’t so much making a choice as acknowledging the inevitable. In contrast, the right time and the right way to begin filling the gaping void on the sports calendar won’t be remotely so obvious.

There have been numerous comparisons to the days following the 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington, but in terms of sports that dreadful day was much less impactful. Only a handful of events outside of the United States were cancelled or postponed, and within our borders the shutdown was short-lived. The calendar also played a role, with fewer major sports in play than was the case this March.

One sport that was stopped cold by 9/11 was baseball, and the return of the Great Game six days later was a sign to the country and the world that life would indeed go on. When the Mets hosted Atlanta at Shea Stadium a few days later in the first major sporting event to be played in Gotham after the attack, the game was cathartic, allowing fans far beyond the five boroughs to cleanse themselves of the siege mentality that had quickly become an unwelcome way of life.

Perhaps because of the role baseball played in helping to restore the nation’s psyche then, or perhaps simply because the COVID-19 shutdown came on the very brink of Opening Day, great attention has been paid to any hint or rumor of how MLB might piece together a 2020 season. So while there was talk this week of the NHL sending all thirty-one franchises to North Dakota in hopes of finishing that league’s interrupted schedule, and in Germany players on the eighteen soccer teams in the Bundesliga began practices, and the governing bodies of men’s professional golf agreed on late summer and fall dates for the three majors that will, hopefully, still be contested this year, the lead story about the renewal of our games was a report by ESPN’s Jeff Passan outlining a plan for the return of baseball.

According to Passan’s unidentified sources, the plan under consideration would have all thirty major league teams sequestered in greater Phoenix, using the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and the ten spring training sites in the area, playing without fans in the stands in a season that would begin sometime next month. Reaction, much of it negative, was predictably swift, and on the surface at least, with good reason.

While one might think of a baseball nine, major league rosters are currently twenty-six, and would certainly have to be expanded if the minor league system isn’t playing, to allow for injury replacements. Add in coaching and training staffs, a full slate of umpires, grounds crews at all the stadiums, television broadcast crews along with assorted others needed to produce the games, and the number of people involved quickly grows to the vicinity of a couple thousand. Successfully sequestering that number from the general population of greater Phoenix while constantly maintaining whatever social distancing requirements are likely to still be in place hardly seems practical. To even consider doing so of course assumes that all of them are willing to be separated from their families, potentially for four or more months, an idea bound to face stiff opposition.

And while the typical ballplayer may be a fit young man in his twenties, plenty of the individuals in other roles are older and some doubtless have assorted health problems that increase their vulnerability to the virus. Assuming the plan included regular testing, where would those supplies come from when the lack of adequate testing capability is a leading concern in state after state?

If anything, the plan as outlined has even more logistical problems. Of the ballparks under consideration, only the one regular major league stadium has a roof and thus is climate controlled. The spring training parks are fine in February and March, but by late May the average daytime high temperature in the Valley of the Sun is over 100 degrees, and that number only goes higher through the summer months. If the answer to that is to play only night games, the price would be losing the ability to broadcast live baseball across the country, since all the action will be originating from one time zone. A season staged without either fans in the stands or easy access to live games for fans at home would hardly be the Great Game serving as a popular symbol of national renewal.

That’s just a partial list of the many reasonable objections raised to the plan described in the ESPN report, and is probably why within hours of Passan’s story MLB released a statement saying ”While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association. The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”

Yet even if it winds up being quickly cast aside, the plan as described has already served a useful purpose, by illustrating the scale of the challenge facing all our games. There are communities across the country, home to franchises in one league or several, that are months away from being able to safely host a packed stadium or arena. Even when that day comes, there will be many thousands of fans who will recoil at the prospect of being in such a crowd. So it is entirely appropriate for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Players Association executive director Tony Clark, and their counterparts in other leagues, to be thinking now about what can be done to restart their sports. And it is entirely necessary that as they all do so they remain open to ideas that might seem – and in many cases will turn out to be – somewhere between impractical and impossible. For like opening all the churches for Easter, the one idea that is truly out of touch is that in either sports or life, 2020 will be business as usual.

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