Hopeful sports fans look to baseball for normalcy in wake of pandemic
No one can deny the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has brought an end to the world as we know it. But while we all know there will be light at the end of the tunnel, we have to wonder what exactly the new normal will look like?
Unfortunately, while the pandemic has ushered in a period of fear and isolation, it has also denied a nation fixated on sports its opportunity for much-needed escapism from the stress and troubles of the world.
Clearly, cancellations across all levels of athletics became essential as the world rallied in an effort to flatten the curve, beginning on March 11 when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic – the first such declaration in 11 years. The announcement began a cascade of postponements and suspensions of sporting events.
While the national prospects of sports resuming their respective schedules any time in the near future became more and more unlikely, Texans held out hope that high school athletics might restore a sliver of normalcy by May. From the beginning of the shutdowns, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) expressed the unwillingness to pull the plug on the winter and spring academic and athletic activities.
But Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order April 17 proclaiming all schools—including public, private, and higher education institutions—closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, the UIL found itself with no choice but to follow suit. In the process, spring activities such as baseball, softball, track & field, tennis and golf were cancelled.
Now as we continue to battle the trouble with the curve, the national pastime of baseball represents our greatest hope of tossing us a lifeline to some sliver of normalcy. But if Major League Baseball manages to open the 2020 season in late June, there will be nothing normal about it.
As MLB officials cautiously began to unveil an optimistic and unique plan this week, baseball fans were given the possible target date of starting the season no later than July 2. Not only does the MLB plan to play at least 100 regular-season games, all 30 teams would be playing in their own major-league ballparks, albeit with no fans.
Sounds pretty normal, right? But hang on, sports fans. Here’s where it starts to get really interesting.
Forget about the tradition of teams from the National League and the American League competing for the right to face off in the World Series, an American institution since 1903. MLB would abolish the traditional leagues, realigning based on geography into three 10-team divisions, while teams would play only within their own division.
In the process, the divisions would maintain many of the natural rivalries, offering exciting matchups between arch rivals for the right to advance into an expanded playoff format.
Here’s a look at the possible realignment structure:
New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins
Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners
Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers
It would not be the first time the MLB made the best of a bad situation. In 1995, following the settlement of a player strike, the season was cut to 144 games rather than the usual 162 games. In 1981, when a player strike wiped out almost two months of the season, MLB played a split season in which teams averaged 107 games, and the All-Star Game kicked off the second half of the season.
While several possible plans have been floated around since the postponement of MLB’s opening day March 26, this concept has been gaining support among owners and executives. The proposal includes opening the season in Arizona, Florida and Texas for several weeks before everyone could return to their home stadiums. With that, teams could squeeze in 80-100 games, and perhaps even have several thousand fans in attendance before or during the playoffs.
MLB teams likely will still return to their own spring-training facilities in Arizona and Florida when they resume workouts. Players are expected to be given a week to return to spring training sites, and have 18 to 21 days before the start of the season.
The plan, pending approval of medical experts and providing the availability of COVID-19 testing to the public, would eliminate the need for players to be in isolation and allow them to still play at their home ballparks while severely reducing travel.
It takes the original so-called “Arizona plan” placing all 30 teams in the Phoenix area, quarantined in hotels and playing their games in the 10 spring training ballparks, and makes it better – a more player-friendly proposal that does not force them to be away from their families for months on end.
But before we get our hopes up, keep in mind that MLB and union officials have yet to engage in formal discussions about the financial ramifications of playing without fans. A handful of owners have made it know they would refuse to play unless the players were willing to take a pay cut. Other team officials insist they would require financial relief from the players.
Regardless, optimism abounds among executives believing they could settle their differences in negotiations on a sliding scale depending on the loss of revenue from gate receipts, parking and concessions. The players have already agreed to take pro-rated salaries based upon a shortened season, but the owners would be asking them to take even less. Teams also would need to revise their revenue-sharing plan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the 78-year-old Republican from Kentucky, certainly likes the plan and knows how much America needs baseball right now. In an interview with a Louisville radio station Thursday, McConnell discussed how he called MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently, asking how and when baseball might return.
“I called the commissioner of baseball a couple weeks ago and said, ‘America needs baseball. It’s a sign of getting back to normal. Any chance?’” McConnell told Drew Deener and Jason Nemes of 93.9 FM. “As you may have heard there is discussion about having an abbreviated season beginning around the Fourth of July where teams would either play in their spring training sites in Arizona or Florida or play at home to largely empty stadiums. There’s an active discussion underway to salvage part of baseball season.”
The league has expressed confidence in a return while noting the significant hurdles posed by COVID-19. Most notably, multiple federal and local officials note that large gatherings – such as movie theaters or sports arenas with or without fans – will be the last stage of a reopening as governments seek to loosen social distancing guidelines and invigorate an economy in crisis.
Yet McConnell’s remarks represent the second branch of government expressing perhaps misguided hope for sport’s return. President Donald Trump said in an April 4 conference call with major sports commissioners that he hoped for a late-summer reopening for sports and expressed confidence the NFL would start on time.
Meanwhile, several states have seen protests from citizens demanding that businesses and the economy at large be allowed to reopen, despite warnings from health officials that loosening restrictions too soon could worsen the pandemic.
With that said, the return of major sports could be viewed as accelerating the process of normalization – with the biggest of all, football, nearly on the clock. Clearly, McConnell envisions MLB paving the path.
“If we can salvage part of baseball, surely we can salvage football, as well,” McConnell said. “I think the country needs sports. We’ve all missed that during the pandemic and the sooner we can get at least some of our sports – and I think the one eligible to begin first, would be baseball – it’d be a great morale-booster for the country and an indication that we are going to begin to get back to normal.”
Baseball may symbolize a return to normalcy, but as the proposed plan demonstrates, the 2020 MLB season will be anything but normal. A sense of normalcy will prevail once the regular season commences, but the schedule and playoff format promises to throw us a curveball.
“This is going to be a season like we’ve never seen,” one MLB official told MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal. “But that’s fine. It’s at least a season.’’
Indeed, it’s the end of the world as we know it. But as long as we have baseball, one way or the other, we’ll be fine.
©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.