The only thing wrong with ESPN’s prediction of baseball resuming in 2020 is everything

Jeff Passan of ESPN has been at the forefront of “how Major League Baseball plans to return in 2020” reporting, even when that’s sometimes devolved into just repeating what wish-fulfillment fantasies MLB owners mumble to themselves so they can sleep at night. Yesterday, though, Passan went all-in on wish-fulfillment, reporting that baseball officials are “increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year,” something that ESPN’s web headline writers turned into “There will be MLB in 2020. It’s just a matter of when, where and how.”

Given that when last we checked in with MLB’s plans for restarting, they involved an “everyone involved in putting on games gets placed in a hermetically sealed bubble” plan that was both impractical and roundly panned by players who didn’t want to be kept away from their families for months at a time, what exactly has changed to produce this optimism? Take it away, Jeff:

It’s a contradictory existence in which the baseball world is doing everything it can to prepare for games without any firm plan in place for when or where those games will be played.

That is not actually contradictory! It’s the kind of deck-chair-reshuffling that everyone is doing right now, hoping for a world where reshuffled deck chairs can let things return to somewhat normal while also preparing for the worst if they can’t. “MLB doesn’t know what it’s going to do but is hard at work doing it” isn’t really a news story, but let’s see what else Passan has in his reportorial pocket.

Where will games be played? Well, the easy answer is Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has welcomed the idea of hosting all 30 teams, but logistical issues abound. There is also a wide variety of so-called hub plans, in which baseball would station teams in a set number of cities. The Arizona-Dallas-Tampa possibility that CBS Sports reported is an option. So is a four-city plan. And five. And six.

Just look at the opportunities starting in early May: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota are among the states slated to have stay-at-home restrictions lifted. That means more than a quarter of MLB teams could theoretically host games without fans right now.

Okay, no, they really could not. Let’s take Minnesota for example: It indeed is allowing some manufacturing and other businesses to reopen on a trial basis, but it also explicitly excluded pro sports from this list, so just because the state won’t be on total lockdown doesn’t mean MLB can start scheduling games at the Twins‘ home stadium anytime in the future, let alone “in early May.” Plus, MLB would still have to figure out how to build a city of 10,000 people that can stay coronavirus-free for months at a time, which is easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy to say.

Passan doesn’t actually say that MLB will restart in early May, or anywhere close to it. His “timeline that a number of people in decision-making positions see as realistic” is:

Finalize a plan in May. Hash out an agreement with the players by the end of the month or early June. Give players a week to arrive at designated spring training locations. Prepare for three weeks. Start the season in July. Play around an 80- to 100-game season in July, August, September and October. Hold an expanded playoff at warm-weather, neutral sites in November.

If you’ve been following the pandemic news closely, you probably see the problem here: Even if some potential MLB stadium sites are ready to reopen by June, there’s a significant likelihood that they’ll have to re-close a couple of months later as the next wave of the coronavirus roller coaster hits. Everything that epidemiologists have learned about virus transmission predicts that any significant lifting of social distancing rules will likely result in fresh outbreaks a couple of months later, and while that’s not set in stone — there could be new treatments developed in the meantime, wearing masks could turn out to be way more effective than anyone at first thought, etc. — planning to hold six months of baseball, counting spring training and postseason, seems reckless in the extreme.

Passan’s sources have a plan for that, too, though:

If a second wave of the coronavirus arrives and threatens to shut down the country again, MLB could try to wait it out and just hold a giant playoff…

“Give us 60 days,” one official said, “and we could run an amazing tournament.”

This is actually something that occurred to me as well: If you want to have baseball and all you have is a window of a few weeks, the best way to approach it isn’t to figure out how to salvage a regular season, but what’s the best you can do in that time frame. And by far the most successful 60-day sports format is a World Cup of some kind. How you organize it is up for grabs — Passan floats 16 intradivisional games followed by the top two teams in each division entering a round-robin stage; I would go with a more traditional group stage with six division winners, six runners-up, and four wild cards followed by a Round of 16, etc. But either way, it’s something you could conceivably do in a two-month window, though you’d need to keep training camp down to a bare minimum. (One way to do this: Limit games to seven innings, so starting pitchers don’t have to be as stretched out before the season can start.)

Passan’s plan starts to go off the rails, though, when he envisions his playoff format:

Oct. 22-Oct. 31: The six American League teams that advance congregate at one hub. The six National League teams gather at another. They play each of the other five teams twice in a round-robin format with a collective day off in the middle. The four teams with the best records in each league advance. In the meantime, the nine non-advancing teams from each league meet at a hub and play one game against the rest of the teams there. The winner of that round-robin regains entry into the playoffs. In the case of a tie, hold a winner-advances one-game play-in-to-the-playoff.

That is a lot of hubs! And a lot of players, and team staffs, and TV camera operators, traveling to and from each one, and checking into new hotels, and so on. Which means either you’re going to have to quarantine everybody for 14 days before starting each new round, or you’re going to have to accept that you might get some new infections with each new round, and have a system in place for dealing with that that doesn’t involve shutting everything down again. (Taxi squads of entire substitute teams that are kept in plastic wrap somewhere?) Plus, you have to be damn sure that all of your proposed sites are going to remain virus-free (or at least at low infection levels) and not on lockdown for the whole 60 days, which is not at all a sure thing given that many states are currently reopening businesses despite Covid cases still being on the rise.

So why is Passan so dead sure that there will be baseball in 2020? Because, apparently, the alternative is too grim to imagine:

What gives Manfred and others so much confidence that there will be a season then?

Incentive. It’s not just that everyone wants a season. It’s the doom and gloom over what will happen if there isn’t one.

Okay, I get it. I really do. I don’t want to imagine an entire year without baseball, either, and so if there are straws to be grasped at, I’m eager to grasp at them as much as the next guy. But reporting this as “increasing optimism” about baseball in 2020 rather than “increasing wishful thinking” is just journalistic malpractice — after all, everyone was optimistic that there would be hockey in 2004-05, but in the end there wasn’t, and that was just over issues that were resolvable by human negotiators, without having to give not-really-alive organisms a seat at the bargaining table.

So let’s rewrite that headline for you, ESPN: “MLB wants to play in 2020. They just don’t know when, where, or how.” It’s not going to get as many clicks from baseball-hungry fans desperate for good news, and it’s not going to boost parent company Disney’s stock value in the face of cratering projected revenues, but it does have the benefit of being true.

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21 comments on “The only thing wrong with ESPN’s prediction of baseball resuming in 2020 is everything

    1. There are definitely some small reasons to be optimistic, or at least hopeful, which isn’t the same thing. But “MLB officials want to believe there will be baseball in 2020” is not any of them.

      1. So cue the red, white and blue (and don’t forget to have your slice of apple pie) when MLB says America needs its baseball to escape gloom and doom. But doesn’t that altruistic patriotism conveniently fall flat when America remembers how MLB shut down, locked out and cut short previous seasons (and let’s not forget the betrayals of cities who have lost their teams) all in the name of selling the “national” pastime in their pursuit of more hard american currency. So color me cynical concerning their magnanimous gestures and kabuki….

        1. If America really “needs” it’s baseball at this trying time, why is the largest cartel in this sports industry deliberately and willfully shutting down 40-42 minor league professional baseball teams?

          As usual with these charlatans, it’s all about listening to what they say and not watching what they do.

  1. Much of sports journalism (and mainstream journalism, in a broader sense) is just full-blown stenography now. Any critique of the “LaMesTrEAm meDIa” that doesn’t factor for this reality is completely missing the point.

    Truth be told, I’m not even sure how much blame I’d put on the Jeff Passan’s of the world. There’s only so much that a would-be scribe can do in an environment with restrictions on what type of news can be broken, let alone reported on; where their leverage re: access has been shriveled down to zero; where traffic numbers have long replaced reporting at the altar; where, at last check, there are some six PR specialists for every journalist out there; where even the audience has been conditioned to view everything through lenses with a select groupings of colors; where… well, you get the point.

  2. The “Most Accurate Comment Ever” award goes to Chet Manly.

    Yes, everyone is going to die. I just don’t want it be everyone dying NOW.

    My governor here in Texas unfortunately is drinking from the right-wing protestor Kool-Aid and is now re-opening the state in a haphazard way that doesn’t take into account the views of epidemiologists.

    Keep your eyes out for Texas “leading the way” for the bounce back of COVID-19.

  3. Just a note but DC2021 includes the following companies:

    – Monumental Sports and Entertainment – Parent company of the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics
    – Lerner Enterprises – owned and operated by the owner of the Nationals

    I’m fine with calling DC United put, but the other DC sports teams should’ve been called out as well.

    1. Thanks — I don’t keep up with D.C. sports owners’ various supervillain names, so I missed those.

      1. Yea. This was a my bad, I had two articles opened at once and typed on the wrong one. I’ll strive to do better in the future.

  4. I heard jeff Passan being interviewed around the time the last proposal was made. He was softly laughing at it because he didn’t see how it could possibly work, and it was a little hard to take seriously.

    But he also is caught in the spot of needing to report on something, and this is all anyone’s got. And if he doesn’t report on it somewhat faithfully surely someone else will scoop him.

  5. Last I heard MLB would be entirely re-locating to Taiwan in July for interleague play vs the Chinese Professional Baseball League with the playoffs finishing in December.

    I predict the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions take home the trophy in 7 games vs the New York Yankees.

    Rumors have to start somewhere. Why not here?

  6. The single biggest problem is this. The owners agreed to pay the players a percentage of their salary, based on the numbers. EX: if someone makes $5m and there is an 81 game Season, the player gets $2.5m (regardless if there are fans in the seats) That what was agreed to ( and if that is taken to arbitration, that is what will happen). Meaning: The owners will take a bath in 2020. Not just salaries, and a loss of gate receipts and concessions ( obviously) but will have to rebate money to the networks for lost games. Then the players who do not have contracts for 2021 will pay the price ( anyone want to bet Mookie Betts s is not getting $30m+ in 2021)?.

    1. Some owners certainly will take a bath. (IE: those who routinely get good crowds and spend all their income on high priced players… though there aren’t that many of those owners left these days). For others, I’m less clear on how bad it might be.

      We don’t know what negotiations may be ongoing between MLB and the networks, for example. It is entirely possible that deals will be cut that keep revenues up. Or a special Senate resolution to indemnify billionaires from the effects of coronavirus on professional baseball (at least the Major league kind).

      In the case of those teams that own their regional networks, well, unless subscribers are cancelling en masse one month into the season, I doubt there will be a total loss of tv revenue. No doubt the streaming revenues are in the toilet.

      As for Betts… it’s hard to say. Generally the best players in an FA class get a ton of money no matter what the broader conditions (for all the hand wringing about collusion regarding Machado and Harper last year, both got paid very well in the end. Kimbrel and Keuchel did ok – financially – in the end as well). If you are the Dodgers and you overpaid badly to get Betts, are you really going to let him walk over a few million a season?

      Maybe the Dodgers will have fewer other suitors to fend off in their attempt to resign him, but if he is the best FA available I believe he will still be in high demand.

      I agree that the second (and lower) tier free agents next year are probably going to find the landscape really tough, but then, many would have said the same about the spring of 2019 too. Teams have finally realized that idiotic long term deals – even for prized free agents like Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, Arod, Pujols and the like are just madness. Is there a 7-10 year deal out there you would want to hold as a team owner or GM? There isn’t one I can think of… Trout’s looks good right now… but he’ll be 40 when it ends. How much value will there be in a 35yr old Trout making $37m for 5 more seasons?

      I’m sure there is a team out there that will overpay for somebody they shouldn’t next spring… but across the board teams are less interested in committing long term to guys already “over the peak”.

  7. News from above the 49th parallel.

    Thanks for all the hard work Neil, really appreciate it.

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