ORLANDO, FL --- Sports fans that have turned on their televisions the last 12 weeks or so probably feel as if they’ve climbed aboard a time machine that’s stuck in reverse.
Ever since COVID-19 brought the sports world to a screeching halt in late March, ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, and other sports channels all have scrambled to fill hours of programming with a stream of “classics” and “greatest games”: the 2007 Super Bowl, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 1976 World Series, the 1985 Masters, the 2019 College Football Championship, the 2006 NBA Finals, the 1977 Final Four, the 2016 Indianapolis 500, and on and on and on.
It’s been 84 days and counting since the sports world went dark, and fans are clamoring for live sports – any sport – to watch. Poll after poll show that Americans want their sports back, any way we can get it.
Any of the four major professional sports is almost guaranteed monster TV ratings whenever their season begins or resumes. Case in point, the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, which aired in prime time on April 23, drew 15.6 million viewers – a record, and a 37 percent increase over the 2019 draft. And, that show was basically middle-age men just reading names off of index cards.
We Americans love sports – almost to the point of obsession; after all, the Super Bowl is practically a national holiday. Sports are part of our nation’s fabric. They can give us a sense of belonging, provide an escape from everyday concerns, offer a means of emotional release or expression, and even improve our self-esteem. Take away sports for any length of time, and we lose a part of ourselves.
Well, we sure could use some live sports now.
Baseball by Late June?
Major League Baseball is hoping to fill that pandemic-induced void. Various proposal call for the league to start its regular season in late June or early July, play anywhere from an 82- to 114-game regular season, and then an expanded postseason that ends with the World Series at a neutral site in November or even early December.
Not everyone is popping corks over that news, though. There are many people who argue, with ample justification, that with more than 100,000 Americans dead and another million-plus people sick from this virus, with food banks across the nation overwhelmed by demand, with a healthcare system pushed to the brink in some places, with an untold number of businesses shuttered and jobs lost, and with people all across the country staging protests against racial injustice and police brutality, we have much bigger concerns than bringing back a sport which further enriches billionaire team owners and multi-millionaire players.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump’s COVID-19 task force and the nation’s top expert on this coronavirus pandemic, thinks MLB’s objective to begin play this summer may be moving too fast.
“I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Fauci, who describes himself as an avid baseball fan, told The New York Times in an April 29 story. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready yet.
“Safety, for the players and the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’”
With no vaccine or medical treatment to cure this virus, and with even the most optimistic estimates having a vaccine not available until January at the earliest, Major League Baseball may be one of those sports.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, though, vows that baseball will “turn over every stone” in searching for solutions to play in 2020.
Baseball’s return won’t change anything. It will not bring back those who’ve tragically lost their lives due to this pandemic, heal those who’ve gotten sick, or revive the jobs and businesses lost. But playing games will give us something this country desperately needs: a return to some semblance of normalcy, back to when “social distancing” was an obscure term and not a way of life. MLB’s season would be its get-well card to America.
Medicine for an Ailing Nation
Major League Baseball has a place in soothing our nation’s psyche. During wars, natural disasters, civil unrest -- and now a pandemic -- the sport has helped communities and the nation.
During World War II, MLB continued to play, despite having more than 500 major-leaguers serving in the Armed Forces. In what would become known as the “Green Light Letter”, President Franklin Delinor Roosevelt wrote to MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis encouraging the league to continue, saying it was a needed morale booster. Though the caliber of play took a hit, with rosters filled with men too young, too old, or physically unfit to serve in the military, the games served as a welcome diversion.
In 1968, the Detroit Tigers’ World Series run widely was regarded with helping to ease civil unrest in that city.
Then there was the “Boston Strong” game in April 2013 when the Red Sox played at Fenway Park, their first game since the Boston Marathon bombing five days earlier. In 2017, the Astros’ first-ever World Championship season helped Houston recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
And, of course, there was 9/11. Just 10 days after terrorists flew two airliners into New York City’s Twin Towers, in MLB’s first game back, Mike Piazza hit a dramatic, game-winning home run for the hometown Mets at Shea Stadium. About six weeks later, in the shadows of those leveled towers, there was President George W. Bush at Yankee Stadium throwing out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, which saw the Yankees win three times with late-inning comebacks.
All moments that sent a message: We can overcome this.
Manfred feels that MLB’s season can have that impact again. “I think you saw it after 9/11 in terms of the resumption of play,” he told mlb.com writer Mark Feinsand. “I was there in Shea Stadium that night we began playing (again); it was one of the most memorable games I’ve ever attended. It’s an honor for our sport to be regarded in a way that we have been part of our country coming back from such horrific events.”
What Will It Look Like?
How Major League Baseball opens and what the 2020 season will look like is anybody’s guess, because, frankly, none of us have ever gone through something like this pandemic before.
Playing games in neutral sites or at spring training facilities, playing games in empty stadiums, and playing the World Series in November or December – scenarios that would have been unthinkable six months ago -- are being considered. Pretty much anything and everything is on the table.
This is MLB’s Rubik Cube; its 600-piece jigsaw puzzle where every piece is blank; its “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as the late Winston Churchill would say.
Every question spawns another question, like ocean waves coming ashore -- once one wave subsides, along comes another, then another, and then another.
For instance, how many games are enough for a season – 81, 100, 120? The shortest season on record is 1981, when a players strike limited games to an average of 106 per team (teams had played differing numbers of games when the players walked out.)
How late can MLB season begin, and how late in the year can it play? Players would need an estimated three weeks of preparation, and the later in the year the league plays the higher the risk of running into what health officials have called an “inevitable” second outbreak of the virus in the fall.
Can baseball schedule more doubleheaders, to increase the number of games played?
What happens if a player becomes infected with the coronavirus, and how does that impact the team, its opponents and the league?
What about players who have underlying medical conditions or live with someone who does, and older staff members – all of who are considered to be more susceptible to this virus?
How many players will be added to team rosters because of the shortened “second spring training”?
How do you practice social distancing in space-challenged dugouts and clubhouses when you have 26 players, the manager and coaching staff, the training staff and clubhouse attendants?
If players are sequestered, will it be just the players by themselves or with their families as well?
Is playing an entire season in empty stadiums financially feasible? Will fans be able to attend at some point?
Those are just some of the myriad issues facing Major League Baseball. Right now, there are more questions and problems than answers and solutions.
As they say, it’s complicated. Even something as simple as injuries is impacted by COVID-19.
Injuries are an unavoidable fact of life in sports. Normally, the injured player is put on the disabled list and a replacement is called up from the minor leagues. But, because of the virus, there likely will be no minor-league season this year. So, where do the replacements come from? Do you make all players on a team’s 40-man roster eligible, with 26 active for any given day? Fine, except that last year the Philadelphia Phillies had 45 players appear in at least 10 games; three other teams used 44 players in that many games. So, do you increase that to 50 players eligible?
Various Plans Under Consideration
A number of plans for MLB’s season have been considered: from placing all 30 teams in the Phoenix area, and playing spring-training and minor-league parks; to placing teams in Arizona, Texas, and Florida with several cities serving as hubs and playing in local major- and minor-league stadiums; to a plan that features three, 10-team divisions based on geography instead of the traditional two-league alignment.
The plan that appears to be most likely is one that has teams playing other clubs in their own division and geographical zone, with games played in teams’ home stadiums. For instance, American League East Division teams would play other AL East clubs, and teams in the National League East; NL Central teams would play their division opponents and AL Central teams, etc. This would enable teams to play in their home stadiums, and would minimize travel and hopefully reduce the risk of infections.
Any plan, though, would require the approval of the players union, and federal, state and local governments.
“I don’t have some absolute number (of games needed) in my mind that’s a make-or-break,” Manfred told Feinsand. “I think we have to evaluate the situation. I also think we need to be creative in terms of what the schedule looks like, what the postseason format looks like.”
Playing Without Fans
Whichever plan is adopted most assuredly will involve playing without fans, at least at the beginning.
Here’s Dr. Fauci’s take on MLB playing in empty stadiums. “Nobody comes to the stadium,” he told The New York Times. “Keep (players) well surveilled. Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”
Only once in MLB history has a game been played before an empty stadium. On April 29, 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played at Camden Yards, with no fans in attendance (though a small group watched the action through the gates -- a modern-day Knothole Gang), following four days of civil unrest in Baltimore.
The first two games of the series had been postponed due to those demonstrations, and because of a 10 p.m. citywide curfew, the game was moved to the afternoon.
“There was almost this half-asleep feel because there was no energy,” then-White Sox’s outfielder Adam Eaton told the Baltimore Sun. “There were no people there...There was no music… It was almost like worse than a backfield spring training game.”
It was reported that the stadium was so quiet that when the bullpen phone rang it could be heard in the dugout 400 feet away; that pitchers in the bullpen could hear the ball-and-strike calls of the home-plate umpire; that broadcasters’ calls could be heard on the field; and conversations in the dugout could be heard in the press box.
Is MLB willing to play its entire season absent fans in the stands? It is estimated that about 40 percent of teams’ operating revenue comes from attendance – ticket sales, concessions, parking, luxury suite rentals, etc. Operating without that revenue is “not practical,” New York Yankees president Randy Levine reportedly told Fox Business News.
As we’ve seen communities struggle with Stay At Home orders, there is a contentious tug-of-war between the economy and protecting people’s health.
Having fans in attendance not only creates revenue for teams, it also provides jobs for stadium workers – the ticket-takers, ushers, parking-lot attendants, concession workers, and others – many of whom make minimum wage and do not have health insurance.
MLB’s hope is that at some point, fans will be allowed to attend, and that crowd sizes can increase if the coronavirus is brought under control. But that is far from being assured.
“Fans are crucial to baseball as we know it,” Manfred told mlb.com’s Feinsand. “The fan experience is very, very important; it’s part of the entertainment. We’ve seen it once with a game in Baltimore where we played empty; it’s a very different experience.”
Putting Fans in the Seats
Polls also show that many fans will be reluctant to attend games absent a vaccine or treatment for the virus.
Even when fans are willing and allowed to return, it will be a different experience. Safety and social-distancing protocols will need to be in place. Fans may be required to have their temperatures checked before entering the stadium, and wear masks and gloves. No more “high five” celebrations.
Their numbers likely will be limited, too, at least in the beginning. Instead of the usual 35,000 or 40,000 spectators, there may be only 15,000, who will be seated far enough apart (say, every two seats and every other row vacant) to observe safe social distancing.
One possibility to keep fans from congregating at the gates: using a system similar to Disney World’s FastPass system, with fans entering the stadium according to a time designated on their tickets.
What about concessions? Payment may be cash-less. To prevent fans from milling around concession stands, foods may be pre-packaged. Or, stadiums may go to a system where fans order food and beverages from their seats through a smartphone app and then are alerted to when their order is ready for pick up. No more walk-up service at concession stands, or ordering from a vendor and having the food and drink passed down the row.
It’s not the experience that fans are used to, but then this pandemic has altered a lot of expectations – perhaps permanently.
“To think that things are going to get back to normal soon, it may be a mistake to think that things are ever going to get back to normal,” Ronald Waldman, a professor of global health at George Washington University, told Kelly Cohen in an April 10 espn.com article.
Health of the Players a Key
First and foremost for sports in a pandemic, though, is the health of the players and others connected with the game. As Dr. Fauci said, it trumps everything.
Extensive and widespread rapid-results testing are vital for any plan that MLB is considering. The need to test all players weekly would require thousands of tests to keep the league functioning.
Limiting travel and contact with people outside of designated team personnel (players, coaches, trainers, medical staff, etc.) may be needed. It may require that players and team personnel be sequestered – but, for how long, and would their families need to be sequestered as well?
Any plan, obviously, would need the support of the players. How much risk are they willing to accept to play baseball? Many may balk at a quarantine, especially if it excludes family members.
Angels’ star Mike Trout was likely echoing the sentiment of many players when he told NBC Sports, “It can’t be sitting in our hotel rooms and just going from the field to the hotel room and not being able to do anything. I think that’s pretty crazy.”
But, with a virus as contagious as COVID-19, one trip to the supermarket or contact with an asymptomatic family member could result in a player being infected. What happens then? Is his team quarantined for 14 days? What about his team’s opponents? And, what if an umpire tests positive for the virus? Are both teams in the games he worked quarantined?
“Crazy” is the world we’re in right now. One infection very well could end an already truncated season. Then it’s back to the TV networks airing “classics” and “greatest games” again.
Hmm, have you watched film of the 1936 Olympics yet?
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Nathan Gonthier/Unsplash.com