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A few more thoughts on whether — and how — there will be a 2020 MLB season

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Let’s take another look at some of the issues.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball’s latest plan to start up a 2020 season involves having a “Spring Training 2.0” at as many home ballparks as possible and then a season of 82 games beginning sometime around July 4.

While this sounds like the best-case scenario, there are still many obstacles in the way of doing even that much of a MLB season this year.

Monday, the ESPN.com staff put together this comprehensive look at MLB’s plans and what might prevent them from completing the plans to play baseball in 2020. I thought it would be useful to go through that article, note the most important points (though it’s surely useful to read the whole thing, even though it runs well over 5,000 words.

The purpose of this article is not to re-hash all the various and contradictory reports about money disputes between owners and players. Since owners won’t open their books we truly have no idea what’s true and what isn’t. The sides will have to negotiate. That’s obviously not currently happening.

First and foremost, I think we all need to remember this. From the ESPN article:

“What’s at stake here is a human life,” said Andy Dolich, a Bay Area consultant who has worked as a senior executive for teams in every major sport, including the Oakland A’s. “That might sound overdramatic, but it doesn’t sound overdramatic to me. All the people involved, that’s a person, with a name, who has a family.”

It’s definitely not overdramatic. Lives are at stake. It’s not just about money.

Here are the three major points summarized by ESPN’s reporters:

Baseball’s plan, which calls for “frequent” — but not daily — testing, quarantines only individuals who test positive, increasing the risk of spread and contravening federal guidelines that advise individuals who come in contact with a confirmed infection to quarantine for at least two weeks.

Unless protective equipment and diagnostic testing become more prevalent in the coming weeks, MLB will be competing with medical providers for essential resources in some states. MLB vows it will not siphon resources from the public.

As MLB’s plans took shape, health officials for big league cities were not consulted, leaving out critical decision-makers the league is counting on to execute the plan, including some empowered to shut down the sport in their communities during an emergency. Baseball says it will do so when the plan is complete.

Let me look at that last point first. In recent days, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York have both invited professional sports teams to have events in their states after June 1, without fans in attendance. Whether this can be done safely in those places is still unknown, and it should also be noted that local officials within those states can still have guidelines for such events that are stricter than the governors have mentioned. For example, if the mayor of Los Angeles doesn’t approve these sorts of events, that eliminates Dodger Stadium from possible use.

Beyond that, there has been no word on this sort of thing from the governors of Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all states with two MLB teams. That’s eight of the 30 teams that have not yet been given the go-ahead to play, even in empty ballparks.

I’ve also noted here previously the issues surrounding Wrigley Field, which nestles in a busy neighborhood with many residences within a few hundred feet of its exterior walls. Last Friday, dozens of people gathered around Wrigley just to hear one of their three new organists play for an hour. I think you can see the issue here: There would likely be hundreds of people who would attempt to gather in the streets surrounding Wrigley Field if baseball were being played within, simply to be near the game they love. This is problematic for any number of reasons. It’s been suggested that the area could be cordoned off as it was during the 2016 World Series, with no one allowed in besides people who live there, with proof of residence. The problem here is that the World Series was three evenings. We’re now talking about 40+ days where the entire area would be locked down. That would cost the city quite a bit of money and police presence. I just don’t think it’s feasible.

Per ESPN:

Dan Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner for baseball administration and the chief legal officer, told ESPN that the league’s plan is a “first draft” and that MLB will reach out to local authorities once the plan is in place, possibly as soon as the end of this week. “We’re going to be guided by public health authorities,” he said. “We’re ultimately subject, and rightfully so, to the individuals in each community that are responsible for public health.”

You’d think they would have “reached out” even before a “first draft” was written. Let’s hope they mean what they say here.

What do the players think? Here are two contrasting viewpoints:

The yearning to see baseball return this summer seems nearly universal among players, fans and public officials. “If baseball is a big part of the healing of our country, the normalizing of our daily routines, as an American and as a baseball fan I think it’s important that we get back sooner than later so we can contribute and do our part,” Red Sox catcher Jonathan Lucroy told ESPN.

That’s absolutely true. Beyond being entertainment for those fo us who are fans, there would be great symbolism in the return of baseball on a daily basis. But:

“If we get the plan going and everyone does what it takes to get this to work, and then it just infects the system, it might induce a panic throughout the country,” said pitcher Brent Suter, the Milwaukee Brewers’ player representative. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, they couldn’t even do it with all of these precautions.’ That’s a fear of mine, for sure.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable fear. Testing will be critical. Here are contrasting viewpoints about testing:

Halem acknowledged that some labs are still unable to analyze tests on the scale that’s needed. But he said baseball solved that problem by working with a Salt Lake City lab so that MLB can administer and analyze its own coronavirus tests without interfering with public health needs.

“We made the decision we were going to stay out of that world to not take tests away from the public,” Halem said. He added that private companies assured MLB that it also will not be in competition with the health care system for much-needed personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

But Dr. Val Griffeth, an Oregon emergency medicine and critical-care specialist who co-founded an organization that fills shortages of personal protective equipment for medical providers, disagreed: “Every resource being used by Major League Baseball will be a resource not being used by a health care service somewhere. Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live in.”

We discussed this the other day. I certainly understand MLB’s position, but Dr. Griffeth points out the other side, and indeed that’s a valid concern. Since we’ve already discussed this point, I see no need to re-hash it. I simply wanted to provide the viewpoint of someone involved in providing PPE for medical personnel.

The ESPN article goes on to point out that while MLB players are in a cohort that is one of the least susceptible to the coronavirus — young, healthy, in excellent physical condition — there are quite a few players who have compromised immune systems due to various diseases and/or surgeries they have had. How do you protect those players? Here’s one valid concern:

Beyond their families, teammates, managers and other baseball personnel, players still will be exposed to a broad range of people — from hotel staff to security personnel; from bus drivers to flight attendants. All will be traveling in their own circles when not working; MLB’s plan does not say anything about testing those workers. That creates added potential for an outbreak, experts said.

“One of the things I try to explain to people is that whatever other people are doing who live anywhere near you, is gonna affect you,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit independent think tank. “Just because you’re not going to get a tattoo when you’re in Georgia when your team is playing the Braves, if the person serving you at the restaurant is married to a person who got a tattoo or married to the person who is the tattoo artist, then you as a customer at that restaurant or even picking up carryout has the potential for being contaminated by those people who are doing those things.”

What happens if a player tests positive, then? Do you have to quarantine the entire team and support staff? It’s entirely possible that someone like that could have transmitted the virus to dozens of people.

Under MLB’s plan, only the person who tests positive will be quarantined. That policy conflicts with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which call for anyone who has had close contact with a confirmed case to quarantine for 14 days. “Our experts are advising us that we don’t need a 14-day quarantine [in such cases],” Manfred told CNN. The plan says baseball is following rules established by “health care institutions and governmental entities” but does not specify which entities.

Baseball is in a difficult position: Quarantining players who come in contact with infected individuals could force MLB to shut down entire teams.

Here is one way MLB is attempting to address the transmission of the virus. Quoted is Ron Porterfield, medical director for the Dodgers:

The rituals of baseball will be different, too. There will be no exchange of lineup cards. Managers will wear masks. Fighting or instigating fights will be “strictly prohibited.”

“All baseballs used for pre-game warmups and warmups between innings shall be discarded or disinfected prior to being used again,” MLB’s plan states.

In the beginning, Porterfield said, MLB might look more like American Legion ball, where you “drive to the game, you get out of your car, you open the trunk, you change right there. You grab your hat, bat and glove and play right then and there.”

Fans in the ballparks? I don’t see that happening in 2020, but MLB does:

MLB is holding out hope that at some point fans will be able to attend games this year. If and when they do, the entire ballpark experience is likely to be altered — even baseball cuisine, one team executive said, half-jokingly, with offerings limited to pandemic-friendly foods.

“Food not disruptive to wearing a mask, [like] eating hot dogs under a mask where you take a bite or two,” he said. “Not peanuts and popcorn, anything where there’s constant biting.”

Unless you want to eat like this!

No thanks on that one!

Beyond that, having fans in the ballparks seems difficult and/or impossible. First, I can’t see any city or region in North America allowing a gathering of even, say, 10,000 people, let alone the 40,000 capacity of most MLB stadiums, until next year.

This article is long — and the quotes from the ESPN article are, too — because I go back and forth on the idea of “baseball in 2020.” I miss baseball tremendously and most likely, so do you. I’d love to see games, even on TV, have the daily progression of scores and stats and standings, and hopefully see the Cubs in a postseason, odd as it might be.

Beyond that, if baseball can’t figure out a way to have even a shortened season in 2020 and the other major sports do, that’s a huge black eye to baseball’s future. If they can pull it off — well then, TV ratings should be huge as there’s an enormous appetite for live sports in this country and at least for a while, baseball would have the tube (or phone, or wherever you’re watching these days) to itself. I’d love to have real baseball news and real baseball games to write about on this site.

On the other hand, the obstacles seem large and some of them might not be able to be overcome. When I look at those, I can’t help wondering if it might not be better to just pack it in and start fresh with a “normal” (or as normal as possible) spring training and regular season in 2021.

We are living through unprecedented times. If baseball is played in 2020, I hope it’s safe for everyone involved, from players to coaches to managers to support staff to fans. The stakes are too high for anything else. A reminder of what’s at risk from quote at the top of this article:

All the people involved, that’s a person, with a name, who has a family.

Baseball would be wise to remember those words.

Poll

SHOULD there be a baseball season in 2020?

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  • 52%
    Yes
    (213 votes)
  • 47%
    No
    (191 votes)
404 votes total Vote Now

Poll

WILL there be a baseball season in 2020?

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  • 52%
    Yes
    (181 votes)
  • 47%
    No
    (162 votes)
343 votes total Vote Now