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Major League Baseball should cancel spring training games now and delay the 2020 season

It would be the prudent thing to do as COVID-19 spreads.

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Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday was an extraordinary day in the sports world. In rapid fashion, the NCAA announced that its annual basketball tournament would be held without fans due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Other similar tournaments followed suit, including the Big Ten tournament, which had just one day earlier said it was going forward as normal.

And then, early Wednesday evening:

That’s because of this:

And that likely happened because of this:

I use that tweet with the abbreviated profanity to make a point, which is: Look how easily the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted, and look how swiftly the NBA took action. Here’s yet another reason why that action was so stupid:

Major League Baseball is considering its options, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan:

Note the time on that tweet. It was sent about an hour before the NBA suspended its season. Perhaps the league should consider moving that call up to today, because:

California on Wednesday recommended a statewide limit on large gatherings through at least the remainder of March, according to a memo from the state’s department of public health, bringing into question the home openers of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres as Major League Baseball grapples with how to handle the spread of the coronavirus.

The California Department of Public Health said that “large gatherings that include 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled,” including “professional, college and school sporting events.” Similar edicts already forced the cancellation of an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and A’s and the potential move of the Seattle Mariners’ opening series, probably to the Phoenix area, sources told ESPN.

It’s not just California — the state of Illinois is considering a similar ban:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that the state is evaluating new federal guidance on limiting large public gatherings as cases of the new coronavirus in the state continued to mount.

Pritzker criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday for not offering clear guidance on what constitutes a “large gathering,” but the agency later issued guidelines suggesting organizations in communities with minimal to moderate spread of the virus consider canceling events drawing more than 250 people.

Playing games without fans doesn’t really solve the problem. If even one player, or member of the support staff, or member of the media comes down with COVID-19, that could spread it around the rest of the league. Given the rapid spread of bans on gatherings in many states and localities, relocating season openers is becoming a whack-a-mole game.

Thus today I am calling for Major League Baseball to immediately cancel the rest of spring training and to delay the start of the 2020 regular season for at least two or three weeks, and consider making the 2020 season a shortened season, perhaps to 144 games.

I am well aware that there are major financial considerations involved in doing something like this, for teams, players and broadcast partners. Ken Rosenthal touched on that in his article on this topic in The Athletic Thursday morning:

Financial concerns are trivial in the middle of a pandemic, but a potential issue nonetheless. Players in the past were not paid for games lost to work stoppage. But according to a source, the union in this case would take the position that players would merit their full salaries even in a shorter season; baseball is not a sport with a salary cap, and salaries are not linked to revenues.

An ownership representative emphatically disagreed, saying it would be unrealistic to expect teams to maintain full payrolls while operating without revenue. The official invoked the term force majeure, a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from fulfilling an obligation due to an extraordinary circumstance, an act of God.

The coronavirus certainly fits both descriptions.

Thomas Boswell, who has been writing about baseball for more than 50 years, called for MLB to act this in the Washington Post late Wednesday:

The time for MLB to act is now. Baseball, caught amid several integrity of the game issues, has a chance to do the right thing at the right time; while it would lose some money, the game would gain far more in respect and restored stature.

Either cancel spring training games and play intrasquad games, or play without fans in the stands until Opening Day in two weeks. Don’t wait to see what happens. Don’t wait until we all see more nationwide test results or until an outbreak erupts near a spring training camp and, perhaps, health officials trace back the origins of a community outbreak to a trivial spring training game.

Craig Calcaterra at NBC Sports:

While it might have made some sense a few days ago for Major League Baseball to take a wait-and-see approach or to, possibly, provide for the playing of games without fans, the speed and nature of events unfolding at the moment render either approach insufficient in our view. We believe that, in the interests of coherence, compassion, prudence and basic public safety, Major League Baseball should act promptly and decisively to postpone the beginning of the Major League season. How long such a postponement should be can be best determined in conjunction with public health officials, but it strikes me that an announcement that a two week postponement and a process of reassessing in the interim would make sense.

And yet one more call to suspend the season, from Bill Baer, also at NBC Sports:

MLB should follow the NBA’s lead and suspend the season until further notice, skipping right over the idea of playing in empty ballparks. The baseball season hasn’t started yet, so the league does have the benefit of time, but this is all going to get worse until it gets better. Taking any steps to help slow the rate of transmission will be beneficial in myriad ways beyond the obvious, such as slowing the overloading of hospitals as well as protecting the elderly and otherwise immunocompromised.

The league and its individual teams should also offer financial assistance to stadium workers, as well as minor league players and coaches. This is going to be a hard time for them, as well as anyone who is freelance/contracting and part-time.

That last paragraph is important. And at least one NBA owner is helping out his employees:

Good for Mark Cuban, and if MLB games are cancelled or pushed back, MLB owners should follow his lead.

One more quote from Ken Rosenthal’s article, if you don’t mind, from someone we all know well:

The Angels’ [Joe] Maddon, even before learning of the NCAA and NBA decisions on Wednesday, said it might be best for the entire world, MLB included, to hit the pause button for one month.

“We all take a month off, sit still, see where it’s at, move forward,” Maddon said. “The world might get a chance to hit the reset button. It might be good for all of us.”

Joe is a smart guy. I hope MLB takes his advice. Kris Bryant, another voice of reason:

We are likely to see more municipalities and states enact bans on large gatherings in the coming days. This is a circumstance that none of us has lived through before, and hopefully never will again. Baseball seasons were shortened to 130 games in 1918 and 140 in 1919 (from the then-normal 154) in part because of the Spanish flu that swept across the world in those years and killed many millions of people. Some of the charts in this article explain how fast COVID-19 is spreading and suggest ways to stop it. One of them is what’s called “social distancing.” Among ways to do that is to stop holding sporting events, for a short time, anyway.

It’s clear to me that MLB has to take action now, and I don’t think playing games in empty ballparks is the answer. Halt spring training immediately and delay the start of the season. Perhaps by late April, life across the Earth will begin to return to normal and so can baseball.