This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to gain access to the rest of my work and allow me to keep writing posts like this one.
On Tuesday, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on the discussions Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have been having about starting the currently postponed 2020 season. Nothing within is promising, even if it’s, as Passan put it, the “likeliest to work, and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials.”
“Likeliest to work” could mean anything, mathematically, and as evidenced by MLB themselves even admitting they don’t have a plan within a plan here to restart baseball amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s good to remember that “likeliest” probably means MLB could state that this improved plan has a non-zero chance of working, unlike some of their other plans, which are at zero percent.
Here’s the quick rundown, again via Passan:
The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.
Yes, getting the thumbs up from the CDC should be a positive, but let’s remember that the CDC is basically a bare-bones operation thanks to the current White House administration, and that they just recently removed instructions for President Trump’s little home remedy for coronavirus from their website. It’s important, too, to remember that the various sports commissioners recently met with Trump, who is eager to restart business everywhere and make things seem normal again, whether it’s because there is money to be made or to make him look like a hero or because he’s an enormous dipshit — I’d bet on it being all three of those things — so federal approval for a return to the field might not mean what it should in terms of safety for players, staff, trainers, coaches, or the populace at large.
Of course MLB and MLBPA leadership are eager for a return to normalcy: there is money to be made, and the times we live in are frightening ones. Whether a return to normal lives and normal wages, or something approximating both, can be achieved safely, though, is the question. And it’s unlikely either party has a strategy for making that possible.
What’s a little terrifying in America is that they don’t necessarily need a plan to be any good for it to come into existence. The Chinese Basketball Association has been attempting to restart their postponed season for some time now, as was recently covered in this space, but the Chinese government isn’t allowing that. There are CBA folks upset with that, ones with a financial interest in the league resuming play, but it’s not worth the risk to the government of China to put the entire populace at risk by running these games, even without fans in attendance. Can you imagine the current United States government putting safety ahead of profits? Can you imagine any United States government that has existed during this country’s turn as hegemon putting safety or what’s right in front of profits? Before you answer with some kind of “Trump is the cause of everything bad ever” response, please remember that “his only scandal was a tan suit” Barack Obama backed Wall Street during the last major recession, at the expense of everyone without a stake in that world of finance and power. That’s obviously awful, but leave it to the current administration to try to one-up even that by essentially holding COVID-19 essentials hostage to the various states, unless their governors agree to kiss the ring as part of the re-election campaign dance.
That’s a long — but hopefully effective — way of trying to reinforce that no, just because federal officials are into a plan doesn’t make it a good one. Sure, MLB would isolate the players within the Phoenix, Arizona area, but there are 30 teams, and those would require expanded rosters to make sure this remained a bubble, and not a revolving door of players. Coaches, team staff, trainers, grounds crews, and scouts would also need to be contained within this bubble, just to make the games happen, as would the folks broadcasting the games be they team employees or those of whichever network(s) are carrying the season on television or streaming. Suddenly you’re talking about what, 100 people per team, on average? Even more than that? Whatever the number is multiplied by 30 teams is a lot of “isolated” people.
And that’s before you even think about how these players would be put up in hotels, which have hotel workers who would now absolutely have to come into work in order to make sure everything was running smoothly for the migrated masses of players and associated people. It would put an extra strain on local grocery stores and resources in the same way the people with summer homes coming into my home state of Maine are doing so right now. And there is no plan in place outside of wishcasting everything will be fine if a player gets coronavirus, which could then spread to one of these workers, who could then spread it to their network of unavoidable contacts, and so on. MLB would make Arizona a potential hotbed of coronavirus infection by making it active at a time when the best thing to do is avoid contact and activity: it’s no wonder Arizona’s people aren’t interested in acquiescing to this plan that would be thrust upon them.
Backing up for a second: No, really, there is no plan about what to do if a player tested positive for COVID-19, outside of hoping it didn’t interfere with business as usual:
While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said.
This plan hinges on a player testing positive not having any negative impact for anyone besides that player, and for massive testing protocols that just aren’t possible at this time on the scale MLB would require. “Most important would be a significant increase in available coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time, which sources familiar with the plan believe will happen by early May and allow MLB’s testing to not diminish access for the general public.” It’s a good thought to have, to not impact the public’s access to testing just so a sport can resume, but how feasible is it? Everyone involved in these discussions seems to have far more optimism than is warranted for all facets of it. For example, as Passan notes, the plan would also require players to be fine with leaving their families behind for the entirety of the season: what are the chances the majority of MLB players want that? To leave behind their families during a pandemic, for nearly half-a-year, so they can live in “isolation” to play a game they’re going to be paid for, at least a little bit, regardless of whether there even is a 2020 season?
I understand why MLB and the MLBPA are going to be discussing, basically nonstop, what to do about restarting the season. They don’t want to be caught without a plan if the time comes that a 2020 season can begin, and we’re going to see a lot of half-baked plans sent to major outlets over the coming months, in part to keep MLB in the conversation and show that they’re trying to figure this out, that they haven’t given up, and to gauge the reaction of fans and media to the plans themselves. This one is a dud: it’s not fully formed, because you cannot fully form a working plan at this stage. We’d all love normalcy back, but these times are not normal, and simply wishing normalcy upon them won’t cut it.
Don’t just take it from me, an it’s-only-cynicism-if-I’m-wrong-ass journalist, but also from the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills. “As long as we’re still in a place where a single individual tests positive for the virus that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport. Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.” Looking at MLB’s plans through this lens will save you a lot of disappointment over the coming months, and MLB should be sure that they’re keeping this all in mind, too.