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The pandemic is going to decide whether there will be a 2020 MLB season

Much has changed in the last 24 hours.

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Remember March 11? Seems like it was three years ago, not three months ago. That’s when it was announced that NBA star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 and the basketball league shut down its season. The next day MLB shut down spring training and delayed its 2020 season, and the day after that many states and cities in the USA shut down almost completely, with varying reopening dates.

Over the weeks since that flurry of activity in March, I’ve given quite a bit of coverage here to the off-and-on negotiations between MLB owners and players about the length, pay, etc. of a proposed 2020 season.

That included Friday, when I called the back-and-forth between MLB and the MLBPA “embarrassing,” and I’m not going to take that back. These parties should know better, and all they’ve done in what now amounts to months worth of talks is to alienate their customers — baseball fans.

Not long after Friday’s article posted here, everything changed again. A lot, just like it did on those three days in March. Late Friday morning, the Phillies announced there had been a COVID-19 outbreak at their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Florida:

Five Phillies players who had been training at the team’s facility in Clearwater, Florida have tested positive for coronavirus in recent days, multiple sources tell NBC Sports Philadelphia.

In addition to the five players, three staff members have tested positive. The identities of those infected is not known.

A significant number of team personnel are awaiting test results so it’s possible the outbreak could worsen.

None of the eight people who have been infected have been hospitalized and the virus appears to be under control in all of them.

The Phillies’ spring training complex in Clearwater has been closed for the time being.

The good news is that those who were infected appear to be getting treatment and improving, per that article. The bad news is that “the outbreak could worsen.”

Or has it already?

This article by Jeff Passan indicates players from other organizations tested positive. And it wasn’t limited to baseball, either:

All these outbreaks happened in Florida, which is now becoming more of a hotspot for the virus, almost certainly because it re-opened too early after a short shutdown in April. The resumption of the NHL season could be in jeopardy, and so could the NBA’s plan to have a “bubble” league in Orlando. And this is absolutely frightening:

The Athletic write-up cited by Brett Taylor from Bleacher Nation above is here, if you want to read the whole story.

And late Friday, that turned into this:

Look, I certainly don’t deny that I would like to see baseball played this year. However, I certainly do NOT want to see it played if there are health concerns in various parts of the country that would make it unsafe for players, coaches or other support staff. That appears to be the case now; not only Florida, but Arizona and Texas appear to be hotspots for the coronavirus. You can keep track of new virus cases by county in this interactive map from the New York Times.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that MLB and the MLBPA spent the last week or so shooting themselves in the proverbial foot. Had they focused their attention — and ours — on the virus instead of the money, they would have been seen as taking the high road, instead of simply being out for every dollar they could squeeze out of the other side.

It seems likely that the conditions of the pandemic will not permit a 2020 MLB season to be played at all, given what we know now on Saturday, June 20, the day of the summer solstice. That makes me sad. But the health and safety of those involved need to come first. If you want to tell me I ignored that before today, that’s not entirely true. I was simply focusing on the news at hand. There’s more of that, in the back-and-forth between MLB players and owners:

That’s so cute. Owners think they still control the process here. They don't. The pandemic does. In fact, owners are likely inviting a grievance by players if they do in fact implement a schedule. They proceed at their peril. If you don’t believe me on the possibility of a grievance, perhaps you’ll believe labor lawyer Eugene Freedman, writing at Fangraphs:

Barring a government authority closing ballparks to games entirely, even in the absence of fans, or all domestic air travel being grounded, the Resumption of Play provisions can no longer be invoked to defend successfully against a grievance. If there had been a reasonable argument for the commissioner to cancel the season using his discretion before, he’s greatly undermined it now. It’s a surprising misstep given that rising COVID-19 case rates in several of the states that are home to major league franchises suggest that an argument for a shortened schedule or cancelled season centered around player safety might have been persuasive.

Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post concurs regarding the pandemic:

Friday’s news out of Phillies camp, the first known outbreak for a major league team, may not have doomed the season, but it was enough of a setback to call into question the likelihood of finding a feasible path — with or without a deal on economics — through the pandemic.

It was also a sobering reminder of how difficult it will be for any team sport, baseball included, to pull off any sort of schedule this year. While MLB and the union haggle over the terms of the season and the money each side receives, the virus ultimately will decide how much — or whether — baseball will be played in 2020.

And then there’s this:

The pandemic, in fact, has flared up to a point where it’s impossible to ignore, and it further seems likely we’re not even in the “second wave” yet, but still in the first, per Dr. Anthony Fauci:

Well, first of all, unfortunately for us, we still are in the first wave because even though there’s variability throughout the country, where some places like New York City are going very nicely down, staying down so that they can start to reopen, simultaneously, we’re seeing in certain states an increase in cases and even now an increase in some of the states of hospitalization. What that directly is related to is complicated. It’s a combination of testing more, but not explained completely by testing more, because some of the states really do have a real increase in the percent of the tests that are positive.

The second wave might not hit till fall, by which time it’d be way too late to play baseball, and other professional sports in this country could also be affected.

All of this could actually give baseball owners and players an opportunity. If there really isn’t going to be a 2020 MLB season, sit down right now, openly and with a conciliatory attitude, something that might not be easy, but which is necessary. Begin negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement so we don’t have to worry about whether the 2021 season — presuming it happens — will be marred by talk of a labor stoppage afterwards. Perhaps a deal can be struck that would be good for everyone involved that could take baseball well into the 2020s without any labor issues.

Baseball deserves that. More than that, baseball fans deserve that because as I wrote Friday:

Without all of us — baseball fans — supporting teams, buying tickets, concessions, souvenirs, memorabilia, subscribing to various services to watch games — Major League Baseball doesn’t exist. Period, end of story.

It’s our money they’re spending, in the end, even it comes from TV rights fees, regional sports networks or corporate sponsorships. In the end, all the billions of dollars MLB has been awash in for years simply aren’t there for the sport at all without us, baseball fans.

We can hope, anyway. To all of you — stay safe and well, and to baseball: Get your act together, whether you have games in 2020 or not.

I wish I didn’t have to post this reminder, but I feel it necessary again. Political commentary is generally banned at this site. I have lifted that ban temporarily and only under the following conditions: Keep any political commentary directly related to baseball and also keep it non-partisan and non-personal. Any political comments that do not meet that standard will be deleted without notice.