June 23, 2021

Rosenthal: Baseball faces many questions as it deals with coronavirus (The Athletic)

Major League Baseball is going to do something, has to do something in the wake of the NBA suspending its regular season Wednesday and the NCAA announcing both its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in front of only essential staff and limited family attendance.

The baseball regular season is two weeks away, giving the sport’s decision-makers time to make a decision. But teams are playing spring training games daily in Florida and Arizona. If MLB intends to exercise an abundance of caution, can it justify keeping camps open to the public? Can it allow teams to continue holding workouts, knowing a professional athlete — the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert — has tested positive for COVID-19?

Those are the short-term questions the league must confront in the coming hours. The long-term questions are mounting, too:

Should MLB start the season on schedule, but without fans in attendance?

One player said the environment for such games would be similar to rookie ball, only in major-league parks with major-league talent. But following the NBA’s decision to postpone play, it’s unclear if baseball would be willing to embark upon such a plan, particularly when the state of Washington banned large gatherings in three counties through the end of the March on Wednesday and the state of California issued a similar recommendation.

One club executive indicated MLB might not need to act as dramatically as the NBA because most of its games are played in open-air stadiums as opposed to closed arenas. But another executive, referring to the possibility of further government intervention, said, “I believe this is all going to be taken out of our hands soon.”

Might games be relocated?

The Mariners, after learning Wednesday they would be unable to play their opening homestand in Seattle, seemed to be leaning toward moving the games to their spring training home in Peoria, Ariz. Baseball, however, prefers regular-season games to be played in major-league parks, and two weeks from now, who’s to say the virus will remain less of an issue in Arizona than it is in Washington?

The rapid spread of the virus makes the relocation of games problematic, and perhaps not worth the logistical trouble. As Angels manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday, “They’re saying the West Coast is most susceptible, right? But at what point does Denver become susceptible? And Dallas?”

At this point, no city is a safe haven.

How viable is a shortened season?

Quite viable, considering that previous seasons have been delayed or interrupted by work stoppages, most recently in 1995, when teams began play in late April and the schedule consisted of 144 rather than 162 games.

Ideally, the owners would want to play a full season and not sacrifice any money from attendance, TV contracts and other sources of revenue. One extreme step would be for MLB to cancel the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium and use that week to make up games. The idea of extending the season beyond its scheduled conclusion on Sept. 27 and playing postseason games at neutral sites with domed or retractable-roof parks already has been discussed, one source said.

If a shutdown occurred, how would teams resume their preparation for the season?

Club officials have been asking this question in recent days, knowing they soon might enter unchartered territory.

In 1995, the players went through an abbreviated spring training once their strike ended, and MLB allowed teams to carry extra players for a brief period at the start of the season. The difference now is that the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues are underway, and starting pitchers are going through their normal progressions, increasing their pitch counts as they build toward Opening Day.

“I would bet we delay start of season and bunker down in our spring training complexes,” one executive said. “We would put (the players) on light workloads with the thought that we announce start of the delayed season and give two to three weeks to ramp back up.”

It would be difficult, however, for teams to determine how they would handle a delay without knowing how long it would be. It also would be difficult for baseball to announce a firm start date without knowing what impact the virus might have over the next few weeks.

“I don’t know what kind of parameters we’re going to have,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I don’t know if they will keep us together or we will be allowed to go our separate ways. I don’t know if we’ll be quarantined. I don’t know.”

Would players be paid for any games they missed?

Financial concerns are trivial in the middle of a pandemic, but a potential issue nonetheless. Players in the past were not paid for games lost to work stoppage. But according to a source, the union in this case would take the position that players would merit their full salaries even in a shorter season; baseball is not a sport with a salary cap, and salaries are not linked to revenues.

An ownership representative emphatically disagreed, saying it would be unrealistic to expect teams to maintain full payrolls while operating without revenue. The official invoked the term force majeure, a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from fulfilling an obligation due to an extraordinary circumstance, an act of God.

The coronavirus certainly fits both descriptions.

What will teams do about scouts on the road?

Some clubs are telling their professional scouts to come home from spring training, but one GM downplayed the significance of such a decision, saying teams do not require extensive coverage from the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues because the games are meaningless and trades rarely are made during spring training.

Another club has instructed its pro scouts to hold off scheduling travel in April. International scouting in Italy and the Pacific Rim, two areas heavily affected by the virus, obviously is on hold. The bigger question for clubs, though, is on the amateur side.

Some teams are reluctant to pull back their amateur scouts in advance of the June draft, hesitant to sacrifice a single “look.” Cross-checkers routinely fly all over the country to see potential top picks as the draft approaches. But with an increasing number of colleges and high schools postponing their seasons, the scouts soon might not have many games to attend.

So many questions. So many concerns. The Angels’ Maddon, even before learning of the NCAA and NBA decisions on Wednesday, said it might be best for the entire world, MLB included, to hit the pause button for one month.

“We all take a month off, sit still, see where it’s at, move forward,” Maddon said. “The world might get a chance to hit the reset button. It might be good for all of us.”

(Photo: Jason Freedy / Image of Sport via Associated Press)

Ken Rosenthal is the senior baseball writer for The Athletic who has spent more than 25 years covering the major leagues. In addition, Ken is a broadcaster and regular contributor to Fox Sports’ MLB telecasts and an in-studio reporter for the MLB Network. He’s also won Emmy Awards in 2015 and 2016 for his TV reporting. Follow Ken on Twitter @Ken_Rosenthal.

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