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.