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Rob Manfred says MLB will be ‘aggressive’ about having fans in ballparks in 2021

Maybe it’ll be all right... but there are still some caveats.

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Al Yellon

Major League Baseball suffered a revenue loss of approximately $3 billion in 2020 because fans weren’t allowed at games due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Let’s stipulate right now that this revenue loss doesn’t necessarily equate to “losses” as the term is generally understood. MLB teams won’t allow their books opened to players (or anyone else), so what was “lost” this year is known only to team owners and, presumably, Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Manfred participated in a video chat with other professional sports league commissioners earlier this week and said that MLB really needs fans back in 2021:

“As we look forward, we will be more aggressive about having fans in ballparks,” Manfred said during a panel discussion held by The Paley Center for Media as part of its 25th annual International Council Summit. “There were places where we could have had fans this year, and in fact we did have fans for the LCS and the World Series in Texas. Even though local jurisdictions had started to open up, we decided for this year that we would stay empty during the regular season.

“I don’t think that’s a tenable position for us going forward. We’re going to have to allow the clubs to operate safely. We’re obviously going to have league-wide protocols. If local public health authorities allow for fans, I think you’re going to see fans in the ballpark next year. Now, will it be full stadiums? I kind of doubt that. But we do think it’s important, and it’s why we did it in the World Series and the LCS: to get people accustomed to the idea that you can go to these live events with appropriate protocols, pods of people, social distancing, masks, and do it safely.”

Now, we don’t yet know whether any outbreaks of COVID-19 happened due to having (approximately) 11,000 fans at 13 games (seven NLCS, six World Series) at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, but I’d be surprised if those events didn’t pass the coronavirus around, not with that many people in close proximity. TV images showed most, but not all, fans wearing masks, but we don’t know how things worked at concession stands, restrooms or entry and exit points.

As most of you know, it was recently announced that one potential vaccine for the virus was 90 percent effective in a clinical trial. While that’s good news, it’s just one trial, and there are still the issues of getting this vaccine distributed in hundreds of millions of doses and seeing if it’s that effective in the general public. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says there could be some challenges in getting this vaccine distributed.

I know that’s what it’s going to take for me to get back to a ballpark — a vaccine that’s proven effective in large populations and seeing the COVID-19 caseload drop. In other words, having the “curve flattened.” It’s possible that could happen by the middle of 2021, but right now, as you likely know, caseloads are spiking almost everywhere in the USA, including the Chicago area and Illinois.

I understand Manfred’s position. Baseball can’t afford another season of lost revenue like 2020. It’s not just players who are affected; you surely remember this recent article about nearly 100 fulltime Cubs employees who were let go, and the hundreds of people who work on the gameday staff at Wrigley Field (and all across baseball) didn’t have any work of that kind all year. There’s no doubt that having an effective vaccine that will get COVID-19 under control will not only help public health, but will also help people get back to work.

Manfred says he “kind of doubts” there will be full stadiums next year and I would tend to agree with that. As he notes, many local jurisdictions (including Chicago) didn’t allow fans in 2020 and MLB decided as a result they wouldn’t have fans anywhere this year. That might not be the case in 2021, depending on where we are regarding the pandemic as we cross the calendar into next year.

What I want most of all is for people to feel safe about going back to ballparks and not have MLB rush into things. They should follow the advice of people like Dr. Fauci, and let science make the decisions. It’s not enough for individuals to say “I’ll take the risk,” because the risk is not solely your own, if you have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic. In that case you could unknowingly pass it to others. This is why it’s a good thing for everyone to wear masks.

I miss going to baseball games and would love to return to Wrigley Field. But we have to get the pandemic under control first. I hope Rob Manfred and team owners balance their desire for revenue — something I completely understand — with safety and public health.