Last Thursday, commissioner Rob Manfred said he had spoken to all 18 governors in charge of the states where Major League Baseball sets up shop.
Judging by the favorable response since then, it must have been a Zoom happy hour, because even the two COVID-19 hardliners, New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, now sound ready to throw the season’s first pitch.
On Manfred’s return-to-play checklist, securing the support of government officials had to be considered at the top. The more places that were off-limits, the less chance of playing baseball. And California, with five teams, is a big swing state. Texas got on board, too.
For that reason, Monday’s events were a significant — if somewhat surprising — development.
It was only a few days ago that I questioned the sanity of Arizona and Florida for opening their states to professional sports, right after pools and Jacuzzis, because it felt a little rushed, based on the nation’s ongoing struggle with the COVID-19 outbreak. Gov. Doug Ducey (Arizona) and Gov. Ron DeSantis (Florida) came off as a bit too aggressive with their bro hugs for Major League Baseball.
Turns out, I owe both an apology. Maybe those two aren’t all that worried about flattening the curve, but as far as seizing the political opportunity, they were well ahead of it, with the rest of their colleagues only now falling in line.
Despite Cuomo’s reluctance to loosen the reins on us downstaters and city folk, he proclaimed Monday that pro sports teams can start planning to resume operations in New York as soon as the first week of June. That’s only two weeks away, which seems like a blink after two months of lockdown.
Cuomo was referring to all leagues — minus fans, of course — but the timing works out perfectly for baseball, which hopes to begin a spring training 2.0 next month, followed by Opening Day in July. MLB has not yet determined which locations will be used to prepare for the regular season, but it looks as if Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are going to be available much earlier than expected.
“Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever can reopen,” Cuomo said during his daily coronavirus news briefing. “We’re a ready, willing and able partner. Remember, government rules right now could stop a team from coming back. What’s essential? What’s not essential? I’m saying the state will work with them to come back.”
Sounds as if the Yankees and Mets just got upgraded to essential personnel, without needing an M.D. And for Manfred, it’s good to have friends in the governor’s mansion as he not only works to get baseball on the field again but tries to put pressure on the Players Association to agree to a return-to-play deal.
Manfred turned up the heat with last week’s CNN appearance, telling a national TV audience that MLB will lose $4 billion if no games are played. He followed that up by delivering a 67-page pandemic operations manual to the union, which now must do its own assessment of the meticulously detailed document.
Even if the two sides manage to shake hands on those return-to-play protocols, they’ll have to navigate the thorny issue of player salaries, with the union unwilling to budge on MLB’s revenue-sharing proposal. Both sides must determine if this can work without fans because no governor is ready to permit spectators in the building yet.
“If they can make the numbers work, I say great. Come back,” Cuomo said Monday. “They have to make their own economic decision, whether that economic model works for them. They have to make that decision, but any way we can help, we would help. And then they’ll be up and running, and then when we can fill a stadium again, we can fill a stadium.”
The hunch here is that the Players Association can live with more testing and some behavior modification. If there’s the occasional spit, or someone inadvertently winds up chest-bumping, that’s to be expected. This is more about thorough screening for COVID-19 and incorporating these measures into everyone’s daily routines. It’s got to be a leaguewide mindset to be successful.
As for the salary stuff, neither side can afford to have the season go up in smoke over money. That can’t happen. In these desperate times, it would be a terrible look for the industry as a whole and could result in long-term damage to the sport.
Still, the runway for baseball’s return appears to be clearing some after three more pivotal states climbed onto Manfred’s bandwagon. The commissioner may not have fans in the parks this summer, but he has plenty of them in high places.