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MLB might not be back to normal until 2023

So says one high-ranking executive. Plus, other thoughts about what might happen with baseball in 2020.

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Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Wrigley Field, along with 29 other major league ballparks, stands empty today. It’s likely to stand empty for the rest of what would have been the 2020 major-league baseball season, despite Paul Sullivan’s call in the Tribune to play baseball later this season at big-league parks. That, I think, is unworkable due to travel restrictions and some cities and states not ready for even gatherings of the size needed to put on a baseball game this summer.

What concerns me even further are some comments made by an unnamed Red Sox executive when interviewed by Peter Gammons for this article in The Athletic:

“In 2020,” the official continued, “we just have to try to get the game back. Then we have 2021 and 2022 to rebuild attendance and revenues, to determine where that takes free agency, arbitration, draft and other player compensations. Let’s be realistic — baseball is not going to be the same, just as the world as we know it won’t be the same. What we have to do now and in the next two years have to be focused on what we want baseball to be in 2023.”

Wow. 2023? Three years before we see baseball in any form that’s similar to the way we left it at the end of the 2019 season?

But thinking about it further, it is likely that no aspect of life in America is going to be the same as it was prior to the shutdowns of most major activity last month. Large gatherings such as a baseball crowd — or even perhaps a theater or movie crowd — might not be permitted until 2021. Many restaurants aren’t going to operate the way they used to; some might close. So baseball surely isn’t immune to these changes.

Gammons goes on to describe the difficulties teams and MLB will have with player development and minor-league games not just this year, but perhaps for the next two:

“This is not a game where you can read an exit velocity and pitch velocity and declare someone a major leaguer,” says one American League GM. “Young players have to play. Position players need reps and defensive and baserunning situations and reps. Pitchers need innings, and in many cases, trials in different roles followed by the learning process of repeating success. That doesn’t happen on laptops.”

This is all true, and I noted a few days ago how there is likely not going to be any minor-league season this year. On the other hand, if the “Arizona Bubble League” does happen, minor leaguers might wind up getting some playing time, even if those games amount to glorified intrasquad contests:

“Presuming we’re playing major-league games in that time period, we can figure logistics for home and road games,” says an American League GM whose team trains in Arizona. “We’re going to need what amounts to taxi squads. We’re going to have to play doubleheaders so pitchers coming off injuries get proper work. We may have some younger players who, two or three years into their careers, need to take a step back and find themselves just by playing.”

Gammons also raises this issue, which I don’t think has been discussed anywhere else:

If Florida is severely damaged for two or three years due to the coronavirus spread, can baseball continue to exist in that state? Can Cleveland continue to maintain major league baseball in a northern Rust Belt state? The club has one of the smartest and most creative managements in sports, but the city has seen a 58 percent decline in population since the team last won a World Series. Austin, Charlotte, Nashville and Portland all have more residents now.

So, in a different country, does MLB rethink contraction? Personally, I felt ill when I heard someone who has known the Orioles ownership inside and out for more than 30 years say this spring, “I am very worried about the Orioles’ future five or 10 years from now.”

There is no doubt that if you were creating something called “Major League Baseball” from scratch right now, with no thought to pre-existing cities, leagues, divisions or relationships, there are several MLB cities who would almost certainly not get teams. Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cincinnati, in addition to Cleveland, might be on the outside looking in. To read that quote about the Orioles, who were for several decades one of MLB’s premier franchises, is sobering. Gammons continues:

MLB disallowed Baltimore’s area rights to get the Expos out of Montreal to Washington. Granted, the Orioles now face that steep climb up the revenue and urban landscape market despite Camden Yards, but would Atlanta suddenly be hurt if Nashville was freed up for the Rays, or would the Rangers and Astros be irreparably harmed if the Athletics moved to Austin, with San Antonio less than 80 miles down Interstate 35?

It has been said in some places that MLB might rush to expansion once the pandemic ends, as expansion franchise fees might make up for some of the millions that owners are losing while the game is shut down. But the sorts of people who might pony up billions for expansion teams are also likely losing money in these difficult times. It might not be as easy to find such people in a post-pandemic time.

To return briefly to the topic of whether or not we’ll have a season at all in 2020, I call your attention to this article by Tyler Kepner in the New York Times. While players and owners did make a deal in late March regarding a possible season and what sort of pay they might get if play does happen, consider this:

When Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed on new ground rules for the delayed season on March 26 — the original opening day — they included a stipulation that the sides would “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”

There appears to be a disagreement, Kepner says, regarding the wording “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility.” Players appear to think that means “if we play, we get paid on a pro-rated basis based on the number of games.” Owners, though, seem to believe that further discussions would be needed because if an “Arizona Bubble League” or something similar does happen, their revenue could be down as much as 40 percent because they wouldn’t have any fans buying tickets, concessions, etc. even though owners would still have TV revenue. As Kepner notes:

With so much unknown about the particulars and the practicality of a season, there is no blueprint to even start talks between the league and the players. But the sides are digging in, behind the scenes, for a potentially awkward confrontation. They just hope to have a reason to fight.

All of this makes 2019 seem like such a simpler time, even though it was just last year. I was at a baseball game just 39 days ago, March 11 at Sloan Park. That was the night NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus and the NBA shut down its season, with baseball and other sports and other businesses, towns, cities and states quickly following.

Here is the last play made at Wrigley Field, Nico Hoerner flying out to center field [VIDEO] to end a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals, September 22, 2019.

It will be a long time, I think, before I’m in my seat in the Wrigley Field bleachers or at Sloan Park to watch a game, probably 2021 if not later. I continue to hope there’s baseball in some form in 2020, if it can be done safely, and there’s no guarantee of that. But baseball in the way we knew it previously? Not for a long time, and it could take years before we feel it’s even close to the way it used to be.