ORLANDO, FL --- A fascinating place, Las Vegas – America’s playground for legalized gambling.
In Nevada, you can walk into a sportsbook and place a wager on just about anything, except politics. You can bet on reality TV shows like The Voice, The Masked Singer, and MasterChef. Last year, you could have put down money on who would prevail in the last episode of Game of Thrones (whose finale aired on May 19, 2019). Are you a follower of Britain’s Royalty? You could place a wager on Prince Harry’s next job, after he and wife Meghan Markle decided to strike out on their own from the Royal Family.
For sports fans, well, any game is game for betting at Vegas’ sportsbooks – and not just the final score and point spread. Take the Super Bowl. One can wager on which team wins the coin toss, which team or player scores first, how many points will be scored in the first half, and myriad other bets.
One can even bet on whether Major League Baseball will be able to complete its 2020 season. It’s a topic that a growing number of people in and out of the league are beginning to consider, wondering if the odds are for or against baseball making it through the World Series in this coronavirus-ravaged year.
MLB thought it had a workable plan – and a detailed, 113-page manual that outlined numerous health and safety protocols – in place to successfully complete the 2020 season. The league had hoped to play 60 games in 66 days beginning July 23 – an ambitious schedule with little wiggle room for delays, pandemic- or weather-related.
That plan lasted just four days. Then it ran into the Miami Marlins. A virus that infected some Marlins’ players after the team’s season- and home-opening series with the Philadelphia Phillies quickly spread to more than half of Miami’s 30-man roster, forcing baseball to quarantine the team for two weeks. That outbreak resulted in a domino effect that would alter the schedules of one-half dozen MLB teams, meaning that one-fifth of the league was idled by an outbreak on one club.
In an unrelated development, a week later, three St. Louis Cardinals’ players tested positive for the virus, causing that club’s three-game series at the Milwaukee Brewers to be postponed. (More on this a little later.)
One of those six clubs impacted by the Marlins’ outbreak, the Washington Nationals, reportedly voted not to travel to Miami, citing safety concerns. And, that series was postponed.
As of this writing, MLB has not given a reason for the outbreak among the Marlins, whether it was related to games or actions away from the stadium. Team officials say it occurred during an out-of-state trip to play a pre-season exhibition game, and not because of COVID-19 in Miami, one of the country’s biggest hotspots for the disease.
Old Habits Die Hard
Speculation, though, appears to center around violations by Marlins’ players of league-mandated health and safety protocols. That wouldn’t be surprising, if true. During the season’s four-day opening weekend, I watched all or parts of 15 games, thanks to the MLB Extra Innings cable TV package. I saw images of players repeatedly flaunting the league’s social-distancing mandates: not wearing masks while in the dugout; post-home run celebrations and hugs in the dugouts; victory celebration lines; spitting; and baserunners and first basemen, both sans facial coverings, freely conversing while standing side by side.
Aside from a few players wearing masks – and, most notably, Chicago Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo dispensing hand sanitizer to baserunners – one would have gotten the impression that there was no virus at all.
It appears as though baseball players, like the general public, are having trouble adjusting to social-distancing guidelines.
Baseball has touted its low rate of infections – fewer than 30 of the almost 12,000 tests conducted in the first week came back positive. But, it doesn’t take much – a player visiting a bar, a player’s family member visiting a store, an asymptomatic staff member on a team’s charter flight, two players exchanging high-fives following a home run -- to derail a team, a series of games, or maybe even a season. Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals; three players testing positive postponed a three-game series.
Is MLB’s plan of a “regionalized” schedule perfect? No. Flying state-to-state and then having players return to their homes and families is a disaster – and an outbreak – waiting to happen. It was never a question of if players would become infected. It was a question of how many, when, and how baseball would react.
Still, baseball had to try to play this season. The nation needed a diversion, and something that offered some sense of normalcy during a national health crisis, and an economy in turmoil that resulted in millions of people across the country being unemployed. Everybody – fans, team owners, players, and TV networks – wanted it, even if fans couldn’t attend games.
No ‘Bubble’ to Burst
The alternative was a “bubble” format, which confined players and teams to hotels and ballparks in one geographical location. It worked with the National Women’s Soccer League, and appears to be working for the NBA and NHL.
But, MLB players would never have agreed to a “bubble” that required them to be isolated from their families for three months (including the postseason). As Anaheim Angels’ superstar Mike Trout told NBC Sports back in March when a “bubble” was under consideration, “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 is crazy.”
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told the MLB Network that a “bubble” isn’t realistic for his league. “We’re different from other sports. We would have had to have multiple locations just in order to have enough facilities to make it work. The numbers of people involved and the numbers of people to support the number of players was much, much larger in our sport. The duration would have been much longer, and the longer you go, the more people you have, the less likely it is that you can make the bubble work.”
So, Major League Baseball opted for a plan rife with opportunities for players and team staff members to contract COVID-19. As with the rest of society, coronavirus infections were inevitable. Baseball just figured it would be more than four games before the wheels started falling off.
Postponing games for the safety of the players was the correct call. But now baseball faces a scheduling dilemma. More infections and postponements seem likely. Does the league try to make up missed games by scheduling doubleheaders, thereby doing the very thing it says it wants to avoid: keeping players on the field longer? Or, does it simply cancel those games?
And, what if another team decides, like the Nationals, that it does not want to play in a COVID-19 hotspot? The three states with the most cases of the virus – California, Texas, and Florida – are home to nine of the 30 MLB teams. If a team balks, does baseball cancel those games, move them to a different site and thereby increase travel, or adjust the schedule?
The issues and difficulties facing MLB’s attempts to play during a pandemic are further illustrated by the virus outbreak that has hit the Cardinals. From the original three players and one staff member that tested positive for the coronavirus, and led to the postponement of the Brewers series, news reports indicate that number has grown to seven Cardinals’ players and six staff members.
As a result, St. Louis’ next series – a four-game set in Detroit against the Tigers – also has been postponed. (After the Cardinals-Brewers series was postponed, St. Louis was to begin a four-game, home-and-home set in Detroit. To minimize travel for both clubs, it was agreed that all four games would be played in Detroit rather than having teams fly to St. Louis for two games.)
That means the team, which as of this writing remains quarantined in Milwaukee, is looking at having to make up seven games after just the second week of the season, and that’s if the Cardinals’ are cleared to play their next series, at home against the Cubs beginning Aug. 7. The Cardinals will have been idle for nine days at that point.
An obvious question is where in such a compacted schedule as the 2020 season does a team find opportunities to make up seven games? Does it make up all of them, just a portion, or simply cancel all seven games out of concern for the safety of the Cardinals and their opponents?
Postpone or Cancel Games?
Canceling games is safer for players, but it leads to a scenario where one team might play three, four, six games more than a club with which it’s battling for a playoff spot. It also could lead to playoff contenders playing an unequal number of home games or games against common opponents, thus further increasing strength of schedule disparities. Any, and all, of which could significantly and adversely impact playoff races that, due to a condensed, 60-game schedule, could come down to multiple tiebreakers.
Some flexibility and disparity are required in this strangest of all MLB seasons, but it could bring into question the integrity of the entire season. Is the league really interested in having a “championship” season or merely staging a series of exhibitions? Is baseball willing to let a playoff berth, or even a division title, be determined by winning percentage rather than number of victories? Is it willing to let a virus outbreak, not player performance, determine a champion?
Baseball’s solutions to the problems feel as if they’re being crafted on the fly. Similar to a player who is hurt, but not seriously enough to be placed on the injured reserve list: day-to-day.
For instance, the league’s newest and recently announced idea of shortening games in a doubleheader to seven innings each. The practice is common in high school, college, and the minor leagues, but revolutionary for major-league baseball. The idea is to reduce wear and tear on players, and get them off the field sooner. But, announced during season, it seems like a hasty solution to recently developed problem – much like a youngster repairing nettlesome holes in his bicycle tires with a patch here and a patch there.
As things stand, it’s too early to consider canceling the season. As Manfred told Karl Ravech of ESPN on July 31, “We are playing. The players need to be better (following health and safety protocols), but I am not a quitter in general and there is no need to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
There are considerable incentives for both owners and players to complete the season. The owners get revenue from the lucrative network TV contracts, while players get paid for the regular-season games they play, and a $50 million bonus pool for completing the season.
But, what if COVID-19 infections continue? Would Major League Baseball consider temporarily shutting down for a week or two, shortening an already truncated season? What is the league’s tipping point? How many teams must be sidelined like the Marlins and Cardinals, and how many games missed before MLB admits defeat to the coronavirus? What if the players union says that, because of the increasing number of positive tests and coronavirus hotspots around the nation, it feels that it’s too dangerous to continue the season?
Is baseball’s priority a completed season or one with competitive integrity and concern for players’ well being? The league’s actions in the coming weeks will tell.
When the season’s 60-games-in-66-days schedule was released, it was compared to a sprint. Now it’s beginning to feel more like a stagger. Welcome to “MLB Baseball 2020 Survivor Edition.”
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.