MLB and the MLBPA failed to come to an agreement on a 2020 season, so MLB owners imposed their 60-game scheme of a baseball season for this year and while most of the details about roster sizes, rules and who teams will play have been hammered out the details that are still most vague could pose the biggest threat to a season that hasn’t even started yet: what happens if there is a COVID-19 outbreak on a team?
ESPN’s Jeff Passan started peeling back the layers of that question a bit today and I highly recommend you read the whole article to get a better idea of the types of questions teams may face between now and October, but this jumped out at me:
While the processes in place to handle individual positive cases are dutiful and will be reinforced with even more specificity by each team, the language regarding the actions the sport would take with a deluge of cases is general and vague.
The answers to those hypotheticals would come in the moment. It’s important to understand that baseball does not exist in a vacuum. The sport’s reopening will add tens of thousands of interactions, each carrying a level of hazard, every day. The risk for individual players, because of their age and general health, is minimal but still very real. The risk for older employees — managers, coaches, training staff — is far more palpable. The risk for the sport is, quite literally, immeasurable.
It was a sobering reminder that no one actually knows what baseball, or any other sport, will look like in 2020. The leagues have committed to playing this season but all of that could fall apart fairly quickly if the precautions and testing regime MLB committed to don’t keep the vast majority of players safe. No one alive has seen anything like what we are about to watch.
Though the first case of the flu appeared in the United States in March 1918, the MLB season began as scheduled on April 16 and completed most of its slate. It cut one month off the end of the season and ended with Game 6 of the World Series on Sept. 11, which the Boston Red Sox won against the Chicago Cubs. The game played at Braves Field over Fenway Park due to the larger setting, and attendance was lower than usual.
But that game helped spread a new strain of the virus and caused a second wave of the influenza in the United States. In August, soldiers and sailors returned home from World War I and docked in Boston. Johnny Smith, a sports history professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of the new book, “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War, told Forbes:
“And it’s during this period when the Red Sox and Cubs are playing the World Series that these social gatherings – three games at Fenway Park, a draft registration drive, a Liberty Loan parade – all of those events and the regular interactions that people had on streetcars and in saloons and so on helped spread the virus,” Smith continued. “And Boston becomes really the epicenter of the outbreak in September of 1918.”
The 1919 MLB season started one week later than it had the year before.
A new wave of COVID-19 tied to the return of baseball or any other sport would be a disaster. Hopefully more stringent regulations on fan attendance, and team adherence to local public health guidelines will prevent such a situation in 2020 but it is important to remember that on one really knows how the disease will progress until there is a vaccine.
In the case of baseball any call to cancel the season outright due to safety concerns for baseball players, staff or the surrounding community would fall to Rob Manfred as this clip from Passan makes clear;
On Tuesday, when the league and union were finalizing the health-and-safety protocol, there was a slight holdup over language about Manfred’s ability to steer a season. Already the March agreement addressed Manfred’s “right to suspend or cancel games.” The language in question, according to a copy obtained by ESPN, said that Manfred can do so if “the number of players who are unavailable to perform services due to COVID-19 is so great that the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.”
Let’s be clear: There is no objective guidance in that mandate. Manfred can choose to pull the plug (or not) at any time. I am more than a bit skeptical that he will exercise that authority with the health and safety of players in mind.