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Mike Trout might not play in 2020. What does this mean for the rest of MLB?

If the sport’s best player opts out... can others be far behind? And what else does MLB have to consider before play begins?

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Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Mike Trout is generally acknowledged as the best player in baseball, though you’d never know it by the lack of promotion MLB gives him. If he retired right now, he’d probably be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, even though he’s played just nine MLB seasons. The numbers and dominance are that good.

Which is why this statement by the Angels superstar ought to give MLB moguls pause:

“Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable with the baby coming,” Trout said via Zoom. “Obviously with the baby coming there’s a lot of stuff going through my mind right now, my wife’s mind, my family. Trying to get the safest and most cautious way to get through a season. I told [general manager] Billy [Eppler] and I told a bunch of guys, it’s going to be tough. I have to be really cautious the next few weeks. The biggest thing is I don’t want to test positive and bring it back to my wife. I’ve thought hard about this and I’m still thinking about this.”

He’s certainly not the only one with family issues. Five players (Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, Ian Desmond and Welington Castillo) have already opted out of playing this year, and there will likely be more to come. Kris Bryant and his wife Jessica have a baby only a couple months old. Gerrit Cole and his wife just had a child last week. What will they decide? Will others join those five? Former Cubs, now Angels manager Joe Maddon had some insightful comments on opting out:

I was going to expand this into an all-encompassing article looking at what might happen to MLB in various scenarios this summer, but it turns out Jayson Stark of The Athletic has already done that. So let’s look at some of the key points in Stark’s article and what might happen going forward.

First, Stark notes that there has already been an outbreak of the novel coronavirus big enough to get MLB to shut down all the spring complexes in Arizona and Florida — seven players and five staff members. Stark spoke to Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Division of Infectious Disease, and here’s one very significant portion of what he said:

Among the general public, that wasn’t widely perceived as a major, sport-disrupting development back then. In retrospect, though, maybe it should have been. Given how MLB responded, wouldn’t it have to think seriously about reacting just as firmly to a similar outbreak during the season?

Swartzberg believes that answer should be yes. An infection rate that large should cause a team to put up a STOP sign and shut down, he said, because it says “players are not being responsible when they’re off the field or doing something wrong when they’re on the field.”

MLB has created a 101-page Operations Manual for this season laying out all the protocols players, coaches, staff, broadcasters and media must follow. It’s worth your time to read it — click here (.pdf) — and several of the pages are diagrams showing how players must social distance themselves on the field and in dugouts. Incidentally, one way those diagrams note proper social distancing is to have players sit in the stands instead of dugouts. I ask: How are you going to put fans in the stands if players need that space?

Keeping safe during the pandemic is basically left to players and other personnel on the honor system. The Operations Manual says (emphasis added):

MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from Club facilities, but will expect the Covered Individuals on each Club to ensure that they all act responsibly. The careless actions of a single individual places the entire team (and their families) at risk, and the Covered Individuals on each Club should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to others.

The thing is, this needs 100 percent compliance or it’s not going to work. One player going to a bar or other crowded place could infect everyone on his team. And then what?

Stark wonders what would happen to the schedule if one team had an outbreak that forced it to shut down. It’s not pretty:

Rescheduling those games would be a challenge – and maybe even impossible – in a season in which teams are trying to squeeze 60 games into a 66-day window. But there would be no other choice but to postpone games or cancel them for whatever period of time that team needed to shut down, to try to stabilize its health-and-safety situation.

The problem, of course, is that those postponements don’t involve just that one team. There are always two teams playing. So what about The Other Team on the schedule? If those games could be made up, would that be good news or bad news for that opposing team? How would it feel about playing, say, three doubleheaders in a row? That doesn’t sound like good news to any player I know.

The unspoken issue here is that if one team shuts down, that might force the whole league to shut down, because:

And what happens if those games can’t be made up? You could be looking at “final” division standings in which most teams play 60 games – but Team Shutdown winds up with 46. Or, depending on the schedule, it wouldn’t be out of the question to have all five teams in a division wind up with a different number of games played.

In 1972, when 86 games at the beginning of the season were missed due to the strike, not all teams lost the same number of games due to off days. But no provision was made for making up any games so that teams would all play an equal number of games. The result: The strike might have cost the Red Sox the A.L. East title, as they finished 85-70 while the Tigers were 86-70.

In a 2020 season that’s already shortened, would anyone want a division “champion” that, using Stark’s example of a number of games for “Team Shutdown,” went 28-18 (.609) while another went 36-24 (.600)? Which of those teams really had a better “season”? If the 46-team game loses one more game to be 27-19, that’s a .587 percentage. Does MLB really want to deal with that sort of thing?

Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t have an easy answer to that on a recent radio broadcast, quoted in Stark’s article:

Instead, Manfred hinted it’s a different magic number that he has been pondering: How many teams would have to be dealing with significant outbreaks before he would have to consider stopping the season for all 30 teams?

“The way I think about it is in the vein of competitive integrity,” the commissioner said. “In a 60-game season, if we have a team or two that’s really decimated with the number of people who have the virus and can’t play for any significant time, it can have a real impact on the competition, and we have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing.”

Here’s more from Dr. Swartzberg, and these points seem most important:

“Why are we talking about playing sports in the face of a pandemic?” Swartzberg asked. “It’s nuts.”

In the course of a 45-minute interview, Swartzberg expressed a litany of worries including these:

• That baseball’s aging coaches are “in real danger.”

• That with infection rates surging in many states, baseball’s plan to have teams travel from city to city creates a risk not just to teams and players, but also a clear public health risk – and “the only question is how much” of a risk.

• That “Southern California, Texas, Arizona and Florida are the current hot spots” – so “no teams should be playing in those areas right now.”

• And that he’s not convinced that any of the major professional sports will be able to successfully get back to playing the way they envisioned – except possibly golf.

But then there is his biggest fear, as someone who has spent a lifetime studying diseases such as COVID-19 – that “one of the players on one of the teams gets very sick, and is on a ventilator or, God forbid, that player dies. One case. It will shut down the whole team – or, probably, the whole league.”

Well, now we’re getting to the crux of the matter and of course, no one wants to see anyone put on a ventilator or die just from playing baseball.

Dr. Swartzberg is right, playing games in places where there are major COVID-19 outbreaks going on right now seems like a really bad idea. So is any idea of putting any fans in the stands, or even on Wrigley rooftops, as the Cubs apparently desire. Former Cub Jeff Samardzija summed that up quite well:

Shark has never been afraid to speak his mind. He’s right, too.

I understand all the reasons MLB (and other sports) are trying to get back on the field, court or ice. They’ve been subject to the same economic disruption that any business has suffered during the pandemic, losing many millions, even billions of dollars. I get that.

And it’s not just players who have lost salary — it’s the other fulltime employees of ballclubs, most of whom have had to take pay cuts and some have been furloughed. It’s all the gameday staffs, vendors, ushers, security, most of whom work multiple jobs to make ends meet, all of whom have been unable to work their baseball jobs this year. I get it, it was definitely worth the effort to try to bring sports back. I miss baseball terribly myself, it has defined my spring, summer and fall for as long as I can remember and I feel somewhat adrift without it to mark the passage of the seasons. Dr. Swartzberg has the same feelings, and most likely, so do you:

“I love sports,” he said. “And I miss them terribly. It’s something that we all want. You know, we want to go back to normal. But we can’t get back there now. We’re not living in a normal world. And trying to get back to that world is impossible.”

He understands, too, why so many people have such a difficult time accepting that reality, because “it’s really hard,” he said – even for him.

One of the reasons I didn’t write anything about the Cubs’ return to “summer camp” and what happened at their first workout Friday is that it just didn’t feel right. More than anything, when baseball returns I want it to feel right, to be right, to be played in a world with a COVID-19 vaccine where all of us who want to go cheer on our favorite team can do so safely. The scary experience Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy went through after he caught the coronavirus should give us all pause regarding the game continuing.

I don’t think we’re at a point where the game can continue safely. We might not be there for quite some time, perhaps not until that vaccine is available. Baseball should be saluted for its attempt to give us some form of normalcy, but we might not be able to have that until 2021.

So at this point, I think they need to shut it down, before one of their own gets sick and dies, or a family member of a player or coach does.

Stay safe, everyone.


The 2020 baseball season...

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Shut it down now
    (221 votes)
  • 29%
    Let it begin, but shut down if necessary while it’s going on
    (121 votes)
  • 16%
    Full speed ahead, all 60 games and the postseason
    (67 votes)
409 votes total Vote Now