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Some thoughts about coronavirus, MLB and the Cubs

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Baseball hasn’t been affected... yet.

Sue Skowronski

Early this week, Major League Baseball issued a memo to all teams regarding some common-sense precautions they could take regarding the coronavirus outbreak. (I’ll use that term here even though “coronavirus” is a general term for many types of viruses. This particular outbreak should more accurately be termed “COVID-19.”) Among the things suggested:

Players avoid taking balls and pens directly from fans to sign autographs — a suggestion that will be fleshed out in training materials the league intends to send to teams — and opt against handshakes.

Security staff at Sloan Park has been making announcements to fans about this before the gates open, to try to help increase awareness of the issue.

So far, no MLB games have been postponed or moved. The 2020 regular season opener for all teams is still almost three weeks away. But already, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has been asked whether the Cubs/Cardinals series scheduled for June in London, England might be affected:

“As of now it’s on,” Epstein said. “If they tell us not to go, I’m sure it will be a decision they make regretfully but with information that that’s the right course of action. I’m not spending a lot of time (on it). I’m not an expert. It’s important for us to rely on experts and be really transparent.

”Whatever the experts tell us to do, we want to be diligent about it ... and rely on people that know a lot more about it than we did.”

But over the last few days, much international travel by many large companies has been curtailed, and one major US-based event — South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas — has been cancelled.

Professional sports leagues have at least begun to think about this:

For now, though, that is considered just a “precaution.”

But in San Francisco, the mayor made quite a strong statement:

On Friday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued a list of “aggressive recommendations,” urging sports events to be canceled and people to stay away from large gatherings for the next two weeks. The Warriors issued a release soon after, saying that Saturday night’s game against Philadelphia would be played and emphasizing the team’s health procedures.

Here’s how the spread of this virus might begin to affect MLB games. One of the areas of focus for the virus has been the Seattle area. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times wonders if that might force the Mariners to postpone or move games:

What could the Mariners do if Seattle is deemed an unsafe location to open the season? Sources indicate a variety of contingencies have been discussed on the periphery but nothing concrete. There could be games without fans in attendance. The Mariners and Rangers could remain in Arizona and play those games in the area at a spring-training facility.

The Arizona Diamondbacks also open the season at home. So Chase Field in Phoenix will be used. But if the need for an MLB field is demanded, the Mariners and Rangers could play day games there.

Could the Mariners go on the road for those first games instead, traveling to Texas and Minnesota? It’s possible, but the new Globe Life Field in Arlington is still awaiting the finishing touches to be regular-season ready. The Twins open the season at Oakland and would have to figure out travel to whatever needed destination. Also, the weather in Minneapolis isn’t ideal in early April.

The article quotes a Mariners statement that says that as of now, the games are still scheduled to be played in Seattle March 26 (they’re supposed to be hosting the Rangers), but that MLB is “actively monitoring the situation.”

There has also been talk about playing various sporting events, including possibly even some NCAA basketball tournament games, in empty stadiums/arenas without fans. That’s already being done for some soccer leagues in Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak has been worse. And a MLB game in 2015 was played in an empty stadium in Baltimore due to civic unrest there:

Arguably the most memorable crowd-free game took place in Baltimore — an afternoon that its participants describe as weird but unforgettable.

San Francisco Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman, who pitched for the Orioles in that game, remembers realizing that it was the first time going back to T-ball that he’d never played in front of any fans. Players on the field could hear TV broadcasters calling the game and umpires chatting between outs.

”Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Giants teammate Jeff Samardzija, who started that game for the White Sox. “I honestly wouldn’t recommend it.”

After his experience in 2015, Samardzija said he would strongly recommend postponing games and rescheduling them, rather than playing in vacant, quiet stadiums.

”This is a game to be played in front of fans,” he said. ”I understand a lot of people watch on TV nowadays, but it’s definitely a spectator sport.”

Postponing and rescheduling games would, of course, be a logistical nightmare. And that article says it affects more than just players and fans:

“There’s so many layers to this,” said David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at Southern California. ”It’s just all these cascading effects.”

”You (wouldn’t) need ushers and ticket takers and concession stand operators and parking attendants,” Carter explained. ”That’s a small, small, small number — but that’s also going to go into the appreciation of just exactly how costly this would be.”

All of this goes to show just how big a part of the US economy professional sports are. Sure, the games could be played in empty stadiums/arenas and still be televised. But that would create quite a different atmosphere for the events. Whether players acknowledge it or not, I believe they do feed off the energy of a crowd.

As noted above, at this time Major League Baseball has not postponed any events or made plans for them to be played in empty ballparks. But it’s clear that they are monitoring the coronavirus situation on a daily basis. As of now the Cubs are still scheduled to open the season March 26 in Milwaukee and play at Wrigley Field March 30. But it is not impossible that the Cubs might wind up playing some games this year in a Wrigley Field as empty as the photo at the top of this post.

As always, we await developments.