Baseball has already lost April, too, with Major League Baseball following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, introduced March 15, that recommend an eight-week ban on gatherings of 50 or more. And May is already looking bleak, based on that CDC timeline — which now, given the continued spread of the virus, appears hopelessly optimistic — and the necessity of a two- to four-week ramp-up before arms and legs can be ready to play ball.
So maybe June? July? August? Perhaps not again until 2021?
Nobody can say for certain. Baseball ultimately has little say on when, or if, its 2020 season will begin. Given everything else we are confronting, it seems trivial to even ponder.
So far, MLB has said only that its officials “remain committed to playing as many games as possible when the season begins,” according to a statement released March 16.
But the truth remains, with each day that passes — and as the impact of the coronavirus grows larger across all segments of American life, with the scientific community warning it will get worse before it gets better — the baseball season shrinks. Or rather, it shrinks on the front end. And the question for a sport hoping to salvage its season may eventually pivot from “How soon can baseball start up again?” to “How deep into the calendar can it be played?”
“I believe this season is going to be played,” Los Angeles Angels Manager Joe Maddon said on a conference call with reporters this month. “I believe it may not incorporate a full 162 [games], but I believe we’ll play a pretty full major league season.”
There are far bigger things to worry about during these times than baseball, of course, and like most companies and industries across the country, MLB has focused largely on protecting the health of its workforce and girding itself against the dire economics of the nationwide shutdown. MLB and its union have been negotiating issues ranging from player compensation to roster rules to service-time accrual during this indefinite hiatus.
There will be vast sums of money lost, all around. Again, not the most important thing right now, but not nothing.
On Thursday, MLB announced the cancellation of the April 18-19 series that would have been staged in Mexico City between the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as the April 28-30 series in San Juan, Puerto Rico, between the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. Still on the calendar, for now, is the series in London in June between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. July brings the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. And Aug. 13 is supposed to feature the inaugural “Field of Dreams” game between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox near Dyersville, Iowa.
Those, too, could be threatened if the national emergency gets worse.
“I don’t know. You know what’s funny? There has been all kinds of speculation of the length of play, All-Star Game, this, this and this,” Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “This point, in my thought process, you know, tell me when we are going back to work and tell me where we are going next. I try not to overthink and get too much into it, because I will think myself sick if that’s the case.”
The Seattle Mariners, according to General Manager Jerry Dipoto, have closed their Peoria, Ariz., spring training headquarters completely, telling remaining players to go home and go into “offseason mode.”
“Our primary concern isn’t preparing for a baseball season,” Dipoto told reporters via conference call Thursday. “It’s making sure we stay as healthy as we can and that we’re doing our part in a public health crisis to not spread this thing any further than it already has or will.”
However, when it comes to the status and structure of the 2020 baseball season, as eventually will need to be addressed, the decision-makers may find that the needs of baseball as an industry cannot easily be reconciled with the needs of baseball as a sport.
Baseball, in normal times, is a daily game spread across a six-month regular season and a month-long postseason. That structure, with its long, grueling slog through the calendar, is fundamental to its essence. Over a full season, the old baseball adage goes, water always finds its level. Those 162 games reveal all.
But occasionally circumstances have dictated a shorter season. In 1918, the season was shortened from the standard (at the time) 154 to an average of 126 per team, and the 1919 season to 140. Strikes shortened the 1981 season from 162 to 107, the 1994 season to 114 and the 1995 season to 144.
But in the entire modern era of baseball, MLB has never had a season of fewer than 107 games — which, as it happens, would be roughly the number that could fit comfortably into the 2020 schedule, given the current best-case start date of around June 1.
“In 1981, the strike cost us about 50 to 55 games per team,” John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said in a recent telephone interview. “So that season came in at around 107 to 110 games. If we went down to that same number this year, it would still be a season.”
But would it still be a season at, say, 81 games — half its regular size? Fifty games? Thirty? The question, should it even come to that, would go beyond logistics and into the realm of the existential: What is the number of games below which you can no longer stage a representative baseball season?
Thorn, like many others in the sport, was not willing to go there.
“As an historian, my crystal ball works very well in reverse,” he said, “and not so well in the future.”
Other baseball executives contacted by The Washington Post likewise declined to discuss hypotheticals.
“It’s just not the time,” one of them replied.
When (or if) the time comes to squeeze as many games as possible into a 2020 schedule, baseball will have options to optimize its calendar. Among them might be regularly scheduled doubleheaders or a reduction in the number of days off. Canceling the All-Star Game — and presumably awarding a future Midsummer Classic to Dodger Stadium — could gain perhaps another four days. It is also possible that conditions allow for games to begin without fans at first, permitting an earlier start than would otherwise be possible.
“As soon as we can go, we all want to go play baseball,” Baltimore Orioles General Manager Mike Elias said Thursday. “I think it will mean a lot to the country when we’re back playing baseball again, too. So the sooner the better. But I think that we’ll take what we can get, too. We just want to play.”
It might be possible to extend the season beyond its scheduled late September finish, and the World Series beyond late October, although that would bring into play questions about the late-fall weather in the northern half of the country. Moving the World Series, or most or all of the postseason, to a neutral site with a dome or in a warm, sunny locale could mitigate those issues.
Baseball in December? It could happen. However, such a concept leads to additional, thorny questions, including: Would that plan gain the approval of Fox, MLB’s primary postseason rights holder, which carries the NFL in the fall and winter?
“There are a whole host of issues,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Once you start thinking about what has to change, the number of issues gets larger, not smaller, I’m afraid.”
And even if all the optimization moves can be pulled off to squeeze as many games into the schedule as possible, how representative would, say, a 100-game season — the shortest in modern baseball history — actually be? What about an 81-game season? What about fewer?
As MLB starts to ponder questions it never expected to have to ponder, the answer seems obvious, if not very satisfying: None of the scenarios confronting baseball from this point forward will be ideal — but any baseball in 2020 would be better than no baseball in 2020.
“Whatever it takes to get this thing rolling again to make it interesting and not lose the momentum,” Maddon said, “and definitely not lose the season.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.