Imagine the start of the 2020 baseball season resembling a version of the 1998 Jim Carrey film “The Truman Show,” where daily life — in this case, Major League Baseball games — plays out inside a bubble.
But baseball sources who spoke to NBC News say the different contingency plans to start the 2020 baseball season during the coronavirus pandemic are shortsighted at best, with one source saying: “We’re in the pregame stretch with any of these ideas. We’re not even close to the first inning.” The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing discussions between MLB and the players’ union.
The COVID-19 outbreak brought sports to a standstill and caused MLB to cancel the remainder of spring training and postpone the start of the season indefinitely on March 12. But two recent reports detailed possible plans for how baseball could resume play and salvage the season. One plan proposed in an ESPN report would involve all 30 MLB teams playing games in Arizona, using spring training sites and the Diamondbacks’ home stadium, Chase Field. Players, coaches and essential team personnel “would live in relative isolation,” and travel to and from the ballparks each day.
A different plan outlined in a USA Today report would see teams returning to their spring training homes in Florida and Arizona and playing games in those states only — the American and National Leagues would be scrapped in favor of a total realignment of divisions. The Yankees and Phillies, according to the report, would play in the same division since their spring training sites are both on the west coast of Florida.
Either contingency plan calls for games to be played in front of empty stadiums.
“The whole idea of playing without fans is very hard to accomplish. Playing without fans means players are going to have to take very serious pay cuts,” said another baseball source. “If I’m a guy a year out from free agency, am I going to do that? Probably not. And be isolated from my family?”
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MLB and the Players Association have discussed different scenarios to start the season, NBC has learned, but one source said the Florida/Arizona plan was only broached briefly. And contrary to the ESPN report, which said both MLB and the union “embraced” the Arizona plan, a union source called that characterization “totally inaccurate.”
“We listened. But the idea that we had embraced that plan is totally inaccurate,” the union source said.
The union did not comment for this story. MLB released a statement after the ESPN story was published.
“MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so. While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan,” the league said. “While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association. The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”
Beyond the economic factors — loss of gate receipts, stadium sponsorship deals compromised, media revenue only making up a fraction of the overall “gains” — there are overwhelming challenges required to maintain the highest health and safety standards for everyone. Public health officials may express optimism on one front, but health officials from state to state might have completely opposing views. One baseball executive was skeptical that there will be a season if no COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, something that leading health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urge won’t be approved until next year at the earliest.
“Why waste time if there is no vaccine?” the executive asked.
The baseball source said a more prudent outlook would be to wait another two months and see what the global landscape looks like then. If a baseball season starts in mid-July, it could be treated like past strike-shortened seasons, where teams would play a reduced schedule, and playoffs could extend into November.
“All these other plans, they are nice to talk about, and it would be great if they could be realized, but there needs to be about 50 things that have to go right in a very small window of time,” said the baseball source. “Everybody is anxious to play, so everybody is brainstorming.”
If baseball tries to push out a startup plan too quickly, one source worried that it would only increase health risks for those in and around the game.
“How are these plans going to account for the cooks, clubhouse attendants, the media? Any idea there is some degree of risk,” said the source. “Nothing is going to happen fast.”
Christian Red is a freelance reporter who was previously part of the New York Daily News sports investigative team.