BaseballCOVID-19 Impact

MLB Baseball Without Fans Sounded Crazy. It Might Just Work.

Jared Diamond, Louise Radnofskyn | The Wall Street Journal | Source URL

Local lawmakers and public-health experts have given cautious backing to the idea, even if it still remains far-off and full of complex medical and logistical obstacles

It sounded more like science fiction than real life: a proposal to stage the Major League Baseball season in a functional Biodome-like setting in Arizona, sequestering players and other essential personnel in hotel rooms and holding games at various ballparks in the Phoenix area without spectators.

But baseball’s crazy contingency might not be completely crazy after all.

Over the past two weeks, local lawmakers and federal public health experts have given cautious backing to the idea. That has kept it alive among baseball officials even if it still remains far-off and full of complex medical and logistical obstacles.

The most positive development for baseball came on Wednesday, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease leader, expressed optimism about the viability of playing an entire season at one location in empty stadiums.

“There’s a way of doing that,” he said on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” show. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put them in big hotels wherever you want to play. Keep them very well surveilled and have them tested every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family and just let them play the season out.”

The ability for baseball or any sport to proceed depends on pulling off a complex logistical operation.

For starters, staging a baseball game requires more people than most people imagine. Even with no fans in attendance, it takes more than the players and coaches to put on a major-league season—and even they alone would constitute more than 1,000 people. There are also umpires and clubhouse attendants, stadium security staff and television camera operators, team doctors and bus drivers, groundskeepers and cooks.

MLB must be able to guarantee access to the testing infrastructure to monitor those people every single week of a season—without that taking away capacity from the front-line response to the pandemic, or other sectors of the economy considered to be higher-priority.

At this point, such capacity doesn’t exist in the U.S., meaning that it’s impossible to secure MLB’s self-made bubble. When or if that will change is still unknown, which is why baseball is only in the earliest stages of formulating a comeback.

“Baseball is not going to return until the public health situation has improved to the point that we’re comfortable that we can play games in a manner that’s safe for our players, our employees, our fans, and in a way that will not impact the public health situation adversely,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview on Fox Business last week.

Manfred has the support of the government to try, however. President Trump has been actively pushing for the return of sports, even without fans in attendance, signaling that to him, they are indeed a priority.

He said last week, “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.” Officials inside government and baseball recognize the role that America’s pastime could fill in showing that the country is back on its feet, with some thinking back to the first game in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. A July 4 opening day, for instance, would fulfill those dreams.

Manfred is one of several sports executives invited into the large coalition that will advise the federal government on how to reopen the economy. He has met with Trump several times since Trump’s election, golfing with him as recently as October.

“We don’t have a plan,” Manfred said. “We have lots of ideas. What ideas come to fruition will depend on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is.”

One of those ideas makes Arizona the epicenter of the baseball world, a role state officials appear to welcome. Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who was relatively late to issuing a stay-at-home order in his state, said last week that “Arizona, at the right time, is very open-minded to hosting whatever Major League Baseball would like from the state.”

In some ways, Arizona is the ideal location for baseball to create its quarantine zone. In addition to Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ downtown stadium, the Phoenix metro area has 10 spring training sites already used by MLB teams and several colleges with high-quality fields. It also has ample hotel space to keep people isolated.

Unfortunately, the MLB “Biodome” wouldn’t be climate controlled — leaving baseball to figure out how to play games outside during the extreme heat of the desert summer.

Another idea would be to include Florida, the other state with MLB spring training facilities. Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, has added professional sports to the list of essential services in his state, paving the way for games in empty stadiums. MLB has acknowledged that playing in Florida “is one of many ideas that has been discussed.”

In addition to the governmental issues, MLB will also need to negotiate with the players’ union to finalize any plan. Besides economic considerations, players have expressed concerns about what would happen if somebody were to contract the virus and whether their families would be allowed to join them — adding hundreds of additional people that would need to be monitored.

Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, said in a recent interview with NBC Sports’ “Lunch Talk Live” that “there are a lot of red flags” in regards to having a season. Trout’s wife, Jessica, is pregnant and due to give birth in August, leaving Trout to wonder what would happen if he left the quarantine zone to be with her and then came back.

“The mentality is we want to get back as soon as we can, but obviously it’s got to be realistic,” Trout said.

If there’s a season, it’ll be unlike any other in history. Both MLB and the MLBPA say they are committed to playing as many games as possible, perhaps having scheduled double-headers to add to the total. The regular season could be pushed through October, with the playoffs going through November in warm-weather cities or roofed stadiums. In virtually every case, it’ll start without fans.

Just a few weeks ago, spectatorless sports were considered to be a worst-case scenario. Now, they’re the aspiration—and Dr. Fauci is among those rooting for them.

“People say, ‘Well, you can’t play without spectators,’” Dr. Fauci said. “Well, I think you probably get enough buy-in from people who are dying to see a baseball game, particularly me. I’m living in Washington. We have the world-champion Washington Nationals. I want to see them play again.”

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