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Should we MLB?

A staff roundtable from the past couple weeks on the mixture of excitement and concern for the upcoming season.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

John Trupin: The past couple weeks felt like the most erratic seesaw yet for MLB fans. After players called the bluff of MLB’s owners, the league and Players Union seemed within reach of a plausible framework for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. That reach, unfortunately, needs to extend under six feet, and the continuing explosion of COVID-19 cases across the United States underscored the dangers presented in restarting the season in any capacity.

Negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful, and the commissioner has implemented a 60-game season plan, with players reporting tomorrow and beginning workouts Friday. The abrupt possibility of the season has created a mixture of excitement, trepidation, anger, and uncertainty. So, at this point, potentially for the final time, we’re in a position to ask three questions:

  • Do you think there will be an MLB season?
  • Do you want there to be one?
  • And, most importantly, should there be?

Matthew Roberson:

You can’t seriously look me in the eye and say that you need to watch baseball this badly.

People are still getting COVID. People are still dying. Major League Baseball players, and every other athlete whose league is pushing them to make a reckless comeback, are those people too. Athleticism is not a vaccine. And unlike players in the KBO or European soccer leagues, MLB players will be asked to live and play in a country that is showing a maddening inability to follow simple protective guidelines. Don’t worry, though, we’re sending them to specific parts of the country that really have things under control.

Kate Preusser: The reported infections at the camps in Florida are a sobering reminder that despite all best efforts, the players can’t be kept in a bubble. The conversation around return to play has been so focused on the economics of the sport, the health and safety aspect has been virtually ignored until recently, at the absolute eleventh hour of these discussions. Moving the spring training sites back to home ballparks feels to me like a tacit acknowledgment that things aren’t safe, and as happy as I am to heap blame on Arizona and Florida and the irresponsible and reckless behavior there of governors and citizenry alike, it’s a demonstration that this thing can spread quickly in a baseball environment. For the first time, I hoped the two sides wouldn’t come to an agreement, because I don’t think it’s safe for baseball to return. Now that it is coming back, I find myself caught in a weird position of being glad to have baseball-related things to write about and not feeling frozen in place until next February, then immediately feeling guilty for that craven selfishness in the face of a crisis that’s taken so much from so many people, and then an hour passes, more news comes out, and the cycle repeats. It pretty much sucks.

John: The bubble problem is more significant for baseball than any other sport. MLB’s typical season is longer than the NFL’s and their rosters are larger than that of any soccer, basketball, or hockey team. The WNBA has successfully set up a 22-game “bubble” season at the IMG Academy in Florida, which the NBA is hoping to mimic at Disney World in Orlando, but the brevity of both seasons, the latter of which was near its normal conclusion anyways, simplifies things in a way that getting the proposed taxi squad rosters of 60 players per team (1,800 players alone league-wide) in a single area is logistically a non-starter. There’s no “Fight Island” answer for baseball, despite my years of sending letters and schematics to Rob Manfred.

Tim Cantu: It was just a wretched stretch for sports fans’ hopes, as positive tests in basically every sport even thinking about starting up provided PR and a real setback to restarting hopes. The worst may have been the PGA Tour: Nick Watney tested negative, but after a fitness band reported that his breathing was disrupted in his sleep, he was tested again, tested positive, and withdrew. Of course, the second test was after he played the first round and was in contact with a number of the game’s biggest stars. And if he hadn’t noticed something awry himself, he never would have been retested.

Amanda Lane: The NWSL began their Challenge Cup on Saturday. The first major sports league to nail down plans to play, they seemed to have a great structure in place to safely play a month’s worth of games. The other week, a group of Orlando Pride players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19 and the team had to withdraw from the tournament. The culprit seems to have been a night out at a bar by a few players. Those positive tests are the result of individual choices, but they illustrate how difficult, if not impossible, it is for a league to control the individual actions of players. Like the population as a whole, athletes will have individual interpretations of what staying safe means. You can have two people who will both tell you they are social distancing and only making essential trips outside of their homes. To one person that can mean no socializing in person and buying grocery every two weeks. To the second person, that can mean running errands as usual, getting haircuts, and going out to Happy Hour with a couple friends on Friday nights.

Kate: Amanda’s point above about how quarantining has been interpreted differently by different people has been my single greatest frustration with this whole situation. Any teacher (or parent!) can tell you that if you desire a certain kind of behavioral output, you have to be precise about the exact behavioral input you’re giving, but there’s been virtually no consistent, explicit guidelines for behavior either at the state or national level. It feels like a fool’s paradise to expect the situation among 30 MLB clubs to play out that differently from how it has nationally. I’m not confident that some rules about wet rags and no high-fives go far enough, or are explicit enough, to create the desired behavioral outputs, and I’m especially concerned about the lack of conversation around how often players and personnel will be masked.

John: It seems so implausible that any sport could even begin to operate safely without a widespread initial quarantine period, particularly if golf and tennis haven’t been able to keep it copacetic. In that vein, I find myself floored by the sticking point that ownership drew a hard line on: September 27th as the hard end date for the regular season. The arguments are part logistics and part pure financial desire. The later the season goes, the later the playoffs can begin. That means fewer home cities that can reliably host games, as weather becomes a clear issue in November for about half the league. Add that to fear of a long-anticipated “second wave” this fall and winter (though can a second wave come if the first has yet to pass?) and there’s a healthy case that the shorter the season, the better chance of full completion. But it’s hard to take that argument at face value when the financial impetus is so much more glaring. Ownership’s cash cow is the playoffs, which they are at least temporarily expanding dramatically to attempt to recoup income. The additional desire to get playoff games in during the pre-election period seems even more cynical. I’m not sure how this can all work if there’s not a sizable break, and there’s a lot of evidence the health and safety part seems secondary in MLB’s negotiations right now.

Matthew: Besides being hopelessly under sports’ thumb, one of America’s leading toxic traits is letting money make every important decision. Just like your current boss, the last boss you had, and the next boss you will have, the idea of losing all their capital worries MLB owners much more than the well-being of their employees.

If you have billions of dollars to lose, it means you can afford to lose them! I do not care if John Stanton won’t be able to buy a yacht made of caviar! I do care if the players get a deadly virus whose spread would be easily limited by not having a season! This doesn’t seem crazy!

Tim: The other side of that coin that there really isn’t a way to assess for the public is what the internal financials of clubs look like with a fully lost year. Yes, ownership groups are massively wealthy, but how will they go about assessing their books in a year with, sure, no or very little salary paid, but no tv money, gate receipts, very low merchandise sales, and so on? It’s very difficult—like with so many things—to predict what a 2021 looks like financially for clubs. Maybe they should have skipped the avocado toast.

John: It’s a challenge for everyone, there’s no doubt. As has long been noted, though, “we don’t wanna” isn’t a foolproof legal argument for taking the profits and sharing the losses. The financial component is aggravating, no doubt, but I do at a certain point come back to the overarching issue, particularly with the season now set to be mandated at 60 games for prorated salaries, just as was originally outlined in March. As Kate says above, there’s been very little to make me think there’s a well-coordinated plan to keep players/families/employees safe from infection, no matter how many pages are in the book of best practices.

More than the players, in all of this, despite how much I miss watching these players and teams, the risk has felt most glaring to the rest of the people involved who are not young, healthy, and mostly rather wealthy. The coaches, groundskeepers, bus drivers, janitors, pilots, security, media, production teams, and all the other people necessary to not just put on a baseball game, but do so at the level MLB will need to justify their TV deals, are vastly more likely to be at risk, not to mention the families of the players. There are literally thousands of people put into heightened danger of sickness and death through this plan, and none of them are in an MLB ownership group.

Amanda: Despite athletes themselves being low-risk for complications from COVID-19, the complications can be incredibly serious for an athlete. The death rate for the disease doesn’t tell the whole story. Serious lung damage is a side effect among survivors. It is unknown how permanent and long-lasting it is, but lung damage can certainly be career-ending. Athletes face the risk of a career-ending injury every time they play, but given how easily COVID-19 spreads, it’s a higher risk to teammates, coaches, family members, and the general public than a blown ACL.

It goes without saying that we all want baseball back. Having warm weather and sunshine without baseball is like having tonic without gin. I want baseball back. I also want a pony, a million dollars, and a dish-washing fairy. Wanting things doesn’t mean we will or should get them.