“All the players, we understand … the severity of what we’re dealing with here,” Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said. “And we understand why such preventative measures have to be taken for the public health to try to keep this from really being a doomsday scenario.”
It will be the first time since 1995 that the start of the baseball season has been delayed. That year, it was the players’ strike of 1994-95 that pushed Opening Day to late April, with the schedule shortened to 144 games.
This time, it remains to be seen how many games can be played; Unlike the indoor sports of basketball and hockey, which could put their seasons on hiatus and still (at least theoretically) play a full season and postseason by pushing deeper into summer, baseball’s schedule is hemmed in by the weather vagaries of late fall and early winter, which limit how late into the year it can stage the World Series.
Baseball officials vowed to “continue to evaluate ongoing events leading up to the start of the season” with the hope of “resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”
The evolution of baseball’s stance toward its 2020 season underscores the fast-moving nature of the virus and the threat it presents. It was only days earlier that baseball joined with the NBA and NHL in closing locker rooms to the media, at which time all three leagues expected their schedule to proceed unimpeded.
But by Wednesday, as the World Health Organization officially classified the covid-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the pace of disruption accelerated significantly. Local bans on large public gatherings in Washington state and California forced the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Oakland A’s to explore alternative plans, which could have included playing their opening series at their spring training facilities in Arizona.
As late as Thursday afternoon, with Opening Day exactly two weeks away, spring training games in the Grapefruit League started on time, in some cases to packed stadiums. But with a public-health atmosphere that seemed to change by the hour, MLB officials convened a conference call of representatives of all 30 teams and made their announcement late that afternoon.
“This is obviously a unique situation. It’s bigger than baseball, so you just kind of want to be part of doing your best on behalf of the world,” said New York Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, whose team beat the Nationals, 6-3, in what would be both teams’ final game of the spring. “You don’t want to contribute to this becoming a real poor situation, so we’ll be cooperative and try to play our part the best way we can.”
For the time being at least, spring training camps in Florida and Arizona are remaining open for players to train and receive medical treatment — although they were also free to go home. The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, planned to hold an optional player workout Friday and another Monday, with no media availability until the latter. The Yankees planned to stay in Tampa and play intrasquad scrimmages for the time being. The Nationals gave their players Friday and Sunday off but planned to practice Saturday.
“Especially with a shortened season, I think the teams that get off to a fairly quick start are going to benefit,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “I want these guys to understand: When this season starts, we’ve got to be in like June 1 form. ‘Hey, it’s go time.’ And we’re going to prepare for that.”
The situation, however, remains fluid, with major league and union officials expected to maintain an ongoing dialogue.
As of Thursday afternoon, no baseball players were known to have tested positive for coronavirus.
Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall told reporters MLB’s plan was to pick up the regular season schedule on whatever date play resumes — with that date becoming the new, de facto Opening Day. If the delay is short enough, the games that were lost could be tacked onto the end of the schedule; otherwise, they could be scrapped.
“As of now, as I understand it, [Opening Day] is going to be postponed, but we’re going to try to get [all] 162 games in,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts told reporters. “That seems like the best-case scenario.”
In September 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, baseball halted its season for six days, making up all the lost games at the end of the season and pushing its World Series into November for the first time in history. However, it was the relatively short length of the disruption that made such a scenario possible.
The resumption of play is not as easy in baseball as in other sports, owing to the needs of pitchers, especially starters, who by this week were already in the latter stages of the long buildups of their arms for the rigors of the season. Pitchers can’t just shut down for a stretch of several weeks and ramp back up in a matter of days. In 1995, teams conducted abbreviated versions of spring training in the run-up to the delayed Opening Day, but unlike in this situation, pitchers had not already begun full-scale preparations.
“Obviously, we started building pitchers up and things like that,” Boone told reporters, “so we’ll want to continue with that smartly.”
But as baseball closed up its collective shop Thursday afternoon, no one knew precisely when they would open for business again. A game that is played on a near-daily basis from late February to late October will now go dark for at least four weeks and perhaps longer.
“This is weird,” Martinez said. “I said this earlier: This is movie-esque. It really is. You see all these movies on pandemics, and then now it’s all of a sudden, we’re in one.”
Jesse Dougherty in West Palm Beach, Fla. contributed to this report.