Baseball means a great deal to me. It is not just my work, it is my passion. Through baseball, the Cubs and Wrigley Field, I have made lifelong friends who also mean a great deal to me. We share not just the sport and its daily rhythms, but other events in our lives. Of course, I have kept in touch with these friends during this unprecedented time in human history, but without baseball, it’s different.
This morning I should have been in line on Waveland Avenue, waiting to enter Wrigley Field for the Cubs’ home opener against the Pirates, bundled up to combat the expected 45-degree chill. The gates would have opened at about 1 o’clock this afternoon and I would have gone to my left-field bleacher seat and had the view of the game that you see above. It would have been my 43rd home opener, with the first pitch scheduled for 3:10 p.m. CT.
Of course, that won’t happen because the Cubs and Major League Baseball, along with much of the rest of ordinary human life, are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. We’ll simulate that game here at 3 p.m. CT. It’ll be baseball, sort of.
Over the last few days, MLB and the MLB Players Association have hammered out a deal that provides some financial certainties for players as well as other things connected to the baseball season given the uncertainty of when baseball might resume. I haven’t written much about this, because frankly some of those details seem trivial when compared to the very real crisis humanity confronts. Honestly, right now I can’t bring myself to care about whether certain Cubs players will be free agents after 2021, or issues about how games will be rescheduled, or playoff scenarios for this fall, when most of us aren’t supposed to leave home except to go to the grocery store or to get solitary exercise.
I was, however, particularly taken by three significant points revealed in this article by ESPN’s Jeff Passan about the deal between MLB and the MLBPA. Players and owners agreed that the 2020 baseball season won’t begin until all three of these things happen:
There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;
There are no travel restrictions throughout the United States and Canada;
Medical experts determine that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans, with the commissioners and union still able to revisit the idea of playing in empty stadiums.
Up to the moment I read that, I thought that perhaps beginning the 2020 season in late May or early June might be feasible. After reading those points, however, I no longer believe that. That’s because I cannot foresee any way all three of those conditions will be met by early June, even though some parts of everyday life might resume by that time.
This New York Times article suggests the economy could be “safely restarted” in June, but adds this caveat:
We would then open museums and other venues to small numbers of people, although it would be necessary to still prohibit mass gatherings where physical distancing is not possible — sporting events, large conferences, Fourth of July celebrations and tourist sites like Disney World.
I cannot foresee, at this time, any way that gatherings of 40,000 people — the capacity of most MLB ballparks — could be authorized by June, even if most of the rest of the economy is up and running at that point. Even crowds of 10,000 to 15,000 — the capacity of most spring training venues — are probably out.
So what about the idea of playing in empty stadiums? As noted in Passan’s article, MLB hasn’t ruled that out. In a conference call with reporters Sunday, MLBPA chief Tony Clark said players were open to doing it, and so the league might have to start seriously considering doing exactly that.
It would be odd. It’s happened recently, in 2015 in Baltimore (for different reasons), and it was ... weird. But as is the case for just about anything in sports, we would get used to it. I think I’d rather have empty-ballpark baseball than no baseball at all.
One of the reasons to play the game in empty stadiums is, of course, money.
This article by Joe Vardon in The Athletic examines the financial impact of leagues not getting up and running this year (it’s mostly about the NBA and NHL, but the impacts apply to MLB as well). Vardon quotes sports economist and Notre Dame professor Richard Sheehan:
“I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to do public games in the next two years,” Sheehan said. “‘Wow,’ you say? Yeah. But ask yourself, when is a vaccine going to come out? You can’t open up the stadium to fans. It’s simple, very simple. Even by August, September, we’re not going to have a vaccine available yet. Without a vaccine, we’re going to face the same problem then as we face now, but with a twist. The problem is now – we don’t know who has it. You can be asymptomatic and spread the disease, and as long as that’s the case, you can’t have fans in the stands.”
Two years? Might be a little too much — but then there’s also this impact of the current situation:
“A lot of fans are going to be financially hit by this,” said Dan Rascher, a sports economist and team consultant based in California. “People want this (the economic downturn) to be kind of V-shaped, but it’s going to stay down and it’s going to be a while before lots of things come back to normal. I think the leagues are going to struggle for years rebuilding their fan bases, from a revenue perspective.”
With that kind of revenue drop, other sports finances would be affected:
“We’ve lived in one world, and at the end of the day we are going to be in a fundamentally different world,” Sheehan said. “There is just no other way to say that. We’ve lived in an economy of $20 trillion, and sports figures, players have grown used to getting some fairly substantial salaries. The amount of revenue on the table is going to drop dramatically.
“I think you are going to see players’ salaries come back down from the stratosphere, and see much fewer fans in the stands when this ultimately comes down.”
There’s the stark reality we are living in, here in the year 2020. All of us who have gathered at this site are here because we love baseball and the Chicago Cubs and all that those things represent in our society. Right now, none of that exists except on paper and in our memories, and there’s a reasonable chance that all we’re going to have is those memories of Cubs baseball for a year’s time, maybe longer.
And if that’s not depressing enough for you, consider this:
And I should note that while the hope is to have a vaccine in 12-18 months, as I understand it, none of this is a guarantee.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) March 27, 2020
If MLB didn't have games for 2-3 years, I think there's a reasonable chance that MLB is over.
Dan Szymborski is being a bit overdramatic, I think. People will continue to love baseball and other sports all through the situation we are now in. Major League Baseball won’t be “over,” but it might have to re-organize in something of a different form from the way we know it now.
All of this is why I have changed my mind: I no longer believe we will have any baseball games — any sporting events — in front of large (or even small) crowds in 2020. Games in empty stadiums? Sure, that’s possible, maybe by midsummer, so fans can have sports to watch on TV, and leagues can still have revenue from that source.
I attended a baseball game just 19 days ago, on March 11 at Sloan Park in Mesa along with 11,778 others. It appears it will be a long time before anyone will be permitted to be in a crowd even that large, so it could very well be 2021 before I can return to Sloan Park, or make that trek to my left-field bleacher seat in Wrigley Field, or any sports fan can attend a game involving his or her favorite team. I do believe these gatherings will happen again in the future. But when they do return, we will all be altered by the course of events in the year 2020. All of human life on this planet will be utterly changed. It would be foolish to think that baseball will just pick up where it left off March 12 when it returns. It won’t. Will it be better, or worse? At this juncture, we cannot know. All we know is that it will be different.
Be well. Take care of yourselves and your families. Stick together in the common cause of helping humanity get back to whatever our new normal will be when this is over.
At this site, we can continue to discuss the Chicago Cubs and all of baseball here through the rich history of the sport. Writing about that history helps me, as it brings back pleasant memories of what was, and hopefully will be again.
Regarding the 2020 MLB season...
This poll is closed
It will begin sometime in early or mid-summer with fans at ballparks
It will begin sometime in early or mid-summer in empty ballparks
It will be cancelled entirely
Something else (leave in comments)