What began as a backup plan has increasingly turned into an apparent inevitability as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow. If MLB is able to get a 2020 season off the ground at all, it’s likely to be played initially in empty stadiums, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
Just days ago, reporting indicated that the league and union contemplated a return with fans on hand. But that came with a caveat: the agreement gave commissioner Rob Manfred flexibility to launch the season sans spectators (and/or at neutral sites) if circumstances warrant.
As Sherman explains, there’s a growing belief within the game that Manfred will indeed have to find creative solutions to re-start play. The logistics inherent to staging a typical ballgame — stadium workers, public transportation, fans packing stands, etc. — are wholly incompatible with social distancing measures.
Flexibility will surely be the name of the game. Toronto has already announced restrictions that would seem to preclude a typical MLB contest through June 30. Other cities (and/or states and federal governments) will extend or add limitations on gatherings. Even if attendance becomes possible in some jurisdictions, uniformity is unlikely for some time.
Even playing without fans could prove challenging. Consider the difficulties facing Asian leagues that are attempting that feat at present, with halting progress. But it’s surely better than nothing. As Sherman explains, both the league and the players recognize their common interest in getting some revenue flowing again. And we could all stand to see new ballgames, even if only on a screen.
Sherman also highlights another factor at play: the role of the minor leagues. That’s important in its own right, particularly given the typically meager wages paid to minor-league players and the broader battle between MLB and MiLB over the future of the farm system. All of the logistical challenges facing the majors will be multiplied — and without the same revenue potential to support herculean efforts to stage games.
The issue also ties into a key element of a potentially jam-packed regular season: the need for extra MLB players. As Sherman explains, we might see 30-man active rosters. But there’ll be a need for constant supplementation — just as ever, but perhaps even moreso now with the possibility of a shortened second Spring Training and condensed schedule. Developing prospects, keeping depth players available, and managing the 40-man roster for the short and long-term will be more complicated than ever. And it’ll all take place without the underlying structure of a typical minor-league season, at least for some time.
Perhaps some creative solutions will help make this all possible. Sherman floats the concept of upper-minors players participating in some sort of modified instructional league format, where they’d prepare to join the MLB roster as needed. I’ll go ahead and float my own idea: the temporary addition of a few 40-man roster spots that could be used on veteran players. That way, teams could field rosters without forcing up youngsters prematurely or risking prospects to open needed roster space. And it would limit the amount of roster churn — in particular, players moving between different organizations — which could be an important tactic for helping to limit the possibility of disease transmission.
Manfred will face innumerable foreseeable difficulties. Beyond that, there’s broad uncertainty — in all directions. Perhaps some as-yet-unknown development will ultimately brighten the outlook. For now, we can only wait, hope, and do our part to ease the burden on public health systems and our own communities.