Major League Baseball’s journey into the great unknown began Thursday, when it canceled all remaining spring training games and delayed the start of the regular season at least two weeks, the most significant step yet in its reckoning with coronavirus.
So, now what?
Well, this problem turned pandemic has created perhaps the most fluid situation in major North American sports history, with leagues and governing bodies forced to wait out a hoped-for flattening of the curve of new cases across the continent.
And the challenge for baseball, with its 162-game schedule, its nearly across-the-board outdoor setting and its jewel event occurring as autumn creeps toward winter, is certainly unique.
Yet, it has weathered disruptions of all varieties – be they man-made, labor-related or natural disasters - and managed to stage representative championship seasons. Certainly, the coronavirus may prove the most vexing challenge yet: You can’t negotiate with a pandemic, cannot identify an alternate site that is truly foolproof, nor beef up your security detail to ensure the safety of players and paying customers.
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MLB itself doesn’t yet have all the answers, only, as commissioner Rob Manfred put it in a Thursday statement, “a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular season schedule” and will “remain flexible as events warrant.”
What might that look like? Exploring a few factors that will frame how this unprecedented season may play out:
The golden goose
We don’t doubt the sincerity of teams and the league when they assert that public safety will be paramount. But once a relative all-clear is sounded by some combination of the Centers for Disease Control and local governing bodies, there will be one unifying motivation for all parties: Recoup as much revenue and stage as legitimate a season as possible.
Baseball is nearly an $11 billion industry. Market sizes mean the amount of revenue per home date can range widely by franchise, but by many accounts it can fall somewhere between $1 million and $5 million, most of that coming from lucrative TV contracts, a lesser but not insignificant amount from ticket revenue and concessions. (The overriding reason you see so many day-night doubleheaders).
In a best-case scenario – with the season starting April 9 – MLB clubs would lose 183 home dates, or about six per team. The average team would have to make up 12 or 13 games over the next five and a half months.
Exacerbating the problem, off days are front-loaded in the March and April portion of the schedule, which will force teams to forgo precious respites in the hot summer months or resort to undesirable doubleheaders.
It will also require significant cooperation between the league and Players’ Association. The Collective Bargaining Agreement decrees that teams cannot play more than 20 consecutive days without an off day without union approval. That agreement is often reached when mutual off days don’t exist. In 2018, the Chicago Cubs endured a rash of early-season rainouts and then went 30 consecutive days without an off day in August-September, prompting first baseman Anthony Rizzo to, in protest, wear his full uniform on the plane and in the hotel during a one-day journey to Washington.
A simple fix would be to tack early-season makeup games on to the end of the season.
But assuming an off day on Sept. 28 to get teams all over the country to their make-up sites, playing 12 straight days would put the last regular season game on Oct. 10. Barring tiebreakers, wild-card games would be played Oct. 12 and 13.
That would put Game 7 of the World Series on ... Nov. 10.
Not what anybody wants.
Could teams simply make the games up in the existing schedule? In the April 9 Opening Day scenario, the 2020 Cubs, say, would have to make up 12 games against the Brewers, Pirates and Diamondbacks.
Guess what: They can do it! But not without a lot of luck and a good bit of sacrifice.
Start with an April 13 doubleheader at home against Pittsburgh, which would require them to play 12 games in 11 days to start the season. Not ideal, but the only one that would prevent them from playing 28 consecutive days without a break.
Add another set of doubleheaders May 20 at Pittsburgh and May 25 at Milwaukee, which would give them a 25-game, 23-day stretch that would require union approval. A June trip to London wiped out several more make-up slots, forcing them to play three more second-half doubleheaders, on July 6, July 9 and Sept. 21. And the Diamondbacks would have to sportingly agree to an Aug. 24 makeup, despite losing two hours flying in from San Diego the previous day.
Oh, and all this assumes no other postponements during the season. It never rains in Chicago, does it?
Bottom line: 162 games is possible, but threading the needle for 30 teams over 2,430 games is a gargantuan task.
So as Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark sit down in coming days to talk many contingencies and complex logistics, it might be wise to give up the dream of anything close to a full schedule, lest they invite more headaches – or a Fall Classic freezeout.
It will require give and take from both ends, but perhaps hammering out any issues regarding pay and work conditions will make for an amenable prelude to the dirtier work of CBA talks come 2021. (We can hope, anyway).
The championship season
Keep in mind, the aforementioned scenario is only of the best-case variety. It’s quite possible the coronavirus lockout pushes deeper into April, even May.
That’s OK. An excellent season could still be had.
After a court ruling ended ownership’s shameful replacement-player gambit in 1995, teams fired up spring camps and rushed into the regular season with an April 27 start date.
And what a season it was.
The Cleveland Indians managed 100 wins in 144 games, with Albert Belle slugging 50 homers and 50 doubles. They even squeezed in an All-Star Game in Texas, an international showcase for phenom Hideo Nomo.
It culminated in the only World Series title for the great Atlanta Braves teams of the ‘90s, who vanquished those Indians in six games.
Should the pandemic force a deeper delay, the question MLB would face is, what’s a sufficiently long season to keep the format as is?
In 1981, a work stoppage came on June 12, at around the 57-game mark. When games resumed Aug. 10, MLB opted for a split-season format, with just 110 games played.
And thus, the playoff format was tweaked, with divisional mini-series providing an unknowing prelude to the eventual Division Series format that arrived 14 years later.
It was a wonky setup, and the Cincinnati Reds got hosed, finishing with a better overall record than first- and second-half NL West champs Los Angeles and Houston, yet missed the playoffs because they failed to win either half. Those playoffs did deliver MLB’s ultimate dream – a Dodgers-Yankees World Series, which could very well be the result this season.
A significantly shortened season could give the league a chance to test-drive alternate, expanded playoff formats – just hopefully with a more equitable outcome than 1981.
No doubt, baseball will benefit from a public-relations rush when players finally take the field. The fan appetite should be significant, as meaningful games will have been missing since Oct. 30 – and for once, an ugly labor battle won’t be to blame.
Still, MLB should consider the danger of being out of sight, out of mind for too long, and that its news cycle can always be blunted by external forces – the NFL draft, a delayed NBA playoffs that could divert attention from the game well into August, the XFL combine, etc.
With that in mind, the league, already shifting toward more flexible access points in the face of declining attendance, should redouble its fan inclusion efforts. The doors are finally open – welcome the fans in, be it through cheaper price points or a greater feeling of connection with players. Perhaps the pre-autographed ball concept borne of coronavirus fears becomes a model. Not everyone will go home with a trinket, but the more you send home, the likelier they come back.
Clearly, there are few upsides to this delay. One of them is the chance to pause and reconsider how the game might reposition itself.
After all, baseball will eventually embark on an unprecedented season, where flexibility will be paramount. If a cooperative and competitively equitable spirit is fostered, these grim and uncertain days of mid-March will hopefully be a distant memory.