On Opening Day, baseball was closed.
Stadiums shuttered, players and fans under quarantine because of the coronavirus outbreak. For a nation gripped by the despair of a global pandemic, it was another cold, cruel blow to our collective psyche.
And as we fumble along in this darkness, any pinprick of light is worth clinging to. That’s what commissioner Rob Manfred tried to provide in promising baseball’s return this summer during Wednesday night’s interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt.
“The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back,” Manfred said. “Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back. Our fans will be back. Our players will be back. And we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic.”
Manfred’s gesture was meaningful. Everyone who loves the sport wants to hear a date, to be given a general target, something they can circle in their minds as they cope with the crushing mental weight of carrying on in a COVID-19 world.
To be given assurances that baseball will be played this year at the very least suggests that MLB is prepared to bend in previously unimagined ways to make that happen.
The problem? Getting that opportunity. Manfred offered a best-case scenario in his most recent timeline, raising May as a potential reset button for spring training, but the virus is calling the shots here.
“Look, my optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up,” Manfred said. “We’ll have to make a determination, depending what the precise date is, as to how much of a preparation period we need, whether that preparation period is going to be done in the clubs’ home cities or back in Florida and Arizona. Again, I think the goal would be to get as many regular-season games as possible and think creatively about how we can accomplish that goal.”
Manfred, along with the players association, has been discussing the framework for a truncated season for a while now. But this all hinges on when the next Opening Day might be and how many games could possibly follow. No one wants to consider the scenario of not having a season at all, but despite Manfred’s rosier comments, a percentage chance of that deflating outcome remains possible.
Let’s also get one thing straight. We’re talking about these things from a baseball perspective. There are much bigger battles being fought on the front lines of this pandemic, with greater stakes, so it’s important to put the baseball stuff in the proper category.
But the national pastime does have a role to play in all this, just as it always has. The challenge is going to be finding the way back on stage again, to be that spirit booster amid the heavier problems around us.
As much as we could use that ASAP, the timing of that is going to be difficult to nail down.
The logistics of restarting any pro sports league, not just baseball, feel overwhelming, based on what we know about the coronavirus and the recent projections. We can appreciate Manfred’s efforts to be creative — probably by scheduling doubleheaders and possibly going to seven innings for them — but it’s the off-field complications that worry us.
Until the coronavirus is contained to some reliable measure, how would it be possible for teams to travel around the country to areas dealing with varying levels of infection? This isn’t just a 26-man roster conundrum. There are charter-flight crews, hotel personnel, clubhouse staffs, taxi drivers. Teams likely would have to deal with incredibly tight quarantine restrictions, and even those aren’t 100% foolproof, obviously.
Clubs potentially could navigate around some of the hotter spots, and MLB is very much open to juggling the schedule to accommodate that, including liberal usage of neutral sites when necessary. As long as New York City remains under siege as the epicenter of this pandemic, it’s not unrealistic to think the Yankees and Mets could have to play their home games on the road. Regardless, MLB will have unprecedented situations to consider.
“Nothing’s off the table for us right now,” Manfred said. “I think we are open, and we’ve had some really positive conversations with our players association about relaxing some of the rules that govern our schedule. They’re very focused on returning to play and playing as many games as possible. And when you have that kind of positive dialogue, it creates an opportunity to do things that are a little different.”
Whatever it takes. The only way to stomach seeing empty ballparks Thursday was to believe that someday they’ll be full again. Manfred wants us to think that. He’s working to make it a reality.
But this goes beyond the jurisdiction of a baseball commissioner. Manfred can fuel our hopes and draw up a blueprint to get us another Opening Day. Unfortunately, we’re all playing by the virus’ rules right now.