How far would you go to have a baseball season?
Ban the Yankees and Mets from New York? Turn every stadium into a ghost town? Wage a nightly ratings battle with the NFL, NBA and NHL for attention from Labor Day to Christmas?
When it comes to the people who run the sport, both in the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association, the answers to those questions go something like this: Maybe, probably and why the heck not.
There is no simple, painless path to getting baseball back again. And in order to make that possible during this coronavirus pandemic, it is very likely that the schedule, rules and playoff format will need to be twisted into something we never previously imagined.
Remember when sending the Yankees to an Iowa cornfield this August felt like blurring the lines between fantasy and reality? Well, consider that merely a jumping-off point to the seismic changes that could be on tap.
Are you ready to crown a champion after an 80-game regular season? Can you stomach not setting foot in a ballpark all summer? How about watching the World Series during Thanksgiving Week or later, with all the games played at Miller Park, even if the Brewers are home watching on TV?
These conversations — and plenty more — continue after MLB and the Players Association hammered out a deal Friday that cleared away many of the preliminary obstacles to restarting the season. The players got their primary objective in securing up to a full year of service time, regardless of how many games are played, and also a shared $170 million advance as a hedge against not being paid at all because of the “national emergency” clause in their contracts.
But that agreement is nothing compared to the logistics of cobbling together a championship season under this current COVID-19 cloud.
Personally, I just don’t see it happening. Right now, this feels like the first inning or second inning, and we’re just too far away from getting a solid handle on the coronavirus to make long-term plans.
I hope I’m 100% wrong. And for those with a more optimistic view, you can be sure that baseball’s power brokers are willing to do whatever they can to provide some version of the sport in 2020, even if some parts no longer resemble what we’ve grown accustomed to.
“Players have a willingness to engage and discuss all of those pieces,” union chief Tony Clark said Friday night. And when Clark later was asked about expanding the playoff format in the process, he said that idea is on the table, too.
“This is a year where trying different things could be a benefit,” Clark said. “And that is one of the things that on a one-year trial could be a benefit. The guys are willing to discuss it.”
From a baseball perspective, this crisis does present an opportunity. As much as the Commissioner’s Office has tried to implement changes, they routinely have gotten pushback from the Players Association, whose job it is to protect the people whom everyone pays to watch. But now the two sides are singularly united to fight a common opponent, thanks to an unprecedented threat, and that’s going to require some serious outside-the-box thinking.
“When you have that kind of positive dialogue, it creates an opportunity to do things that are a little different,” commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN this past week. “You’re not committed to them over the long term because this year is a unique circumstance. But there’s a lot of ideas out there, and we really are open to all of them.”
Clark mentioned that he does see rosters expanding to accommodate cramming in as many games as possible. A logical number would seem to be 29, up from the 26 that originally was put in place for this season. As for how many games can be played in any calendar week, that’s still up for debate, and it hinges on when MLB gets the green light to start the season.
“There's more that has to be taken into account than just the number of games,” Clark said. “Travel becomes a part of the conversation, as well as where off days are mixed in. So it's hard to say how many weeks in a row. The rule on the books right now is you can't play more than 20 days in a row, but players have suggested to us a willingness to talk about that.”
Obviously, the coronavirus is going to dictate where this schedule conversation ultimately goes. Both sides understand that. And MLB really has no choice but to follow the CDC guidelines, which currently prohibit gatherings of 50 or more people until May 16, at the earliest. Let’s pray it doesn’t get any worse than that — or we get enough good news for it be lifted before that date.
Based on different coronavirus timelines for different cities, however, MLB could find itself trying to tiptoe around certain “hot spots” — a discussion that already has come up. And if New York doesn’t radically improve in relatively short order, you can forget about attending games there even if baseball does return. At this point, abandoning Flushing and the Bronx doesn’t appear to be a deal-breaker, as disappointing as it would be for us.
“That goes to the language that is part of this agreement which affords us an opportunity to talk about neutral sites,” Clark said. “So we have that possibility.”
Whatever the idea, if you can imagine it, Clark and Manfred probably are discussing it. If only to keep the dream of baseball alive in 2020.