The plan — which reportedly has the backing of federal public health officials but, crucially, not yet the MLB Players Association — would see all 30 teams descend upon the Phoenix area, perhaps as soon as next month, for a two- to three-week training camp, followed by as many regular season games as can be squeezed into the calendar. MLB would use the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field as well as 10 spring training facilities in the Phoenix area, plus other local facilities where possible.
The plan, should MLB succeed in pulling it off, would make baseball the first major sport to return in the United States. Unlike the nation’s other major sports — the NBA and NHL had already contested 80 to 85 percent of the regular season by the time the coronavirus shut down all North American sports in mid-March, while the NFL has the relative luxury of time ahead of its September regular season kickoff — MLB, with annual revenue approaching $11 billion, is staring at the possibility of a completely lost season.
That bleak reality leaves both owners and players motivated to think creatively in formulating a workable plan to play ball in 2020, with both sides stressing for weeks the willingness to consider any and all possibilities. Some in the game view the Arizona plan — chosen in large part for the relatively small radius containing so many major league-ready facilities — as a make-or-break proposition, and the many logistical hurdles suggest a difficult path to fruition.
MLB presented the outline of the Arizona plan to union officials Monday, according to a person familiar with those talks. The Athletic first mentioned that plan Saturday, and ESPN reported Monday night the plan had the support of high-ranking federal public health officials.
In a statement Tuesday, MLB said it had not settled on a specific proposal but “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 statement 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.”
The Arizona plan faces countless logistical issues, beginning with the most important one: maintaining the health and safety of those involved. With rosters expected to be expanded significantly beyond the currently mandated 26 per team, and accounting for coaches, umpires, television employees, medical workers and other essential personnel, the number of people present at each game could far exceed 100.
A spokesperson for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) did not return messages seeking comment. President Trump again discussed the return of sports Monday, saying: “Sports are a great thing for this country. And I hope football can start. And I told them, ‘I think you might be able to.’ They may very well be able to. I hope they can start.”
In an effort to keep everyone safe, the plan would call for those personnel to remain, at least initially, in relative isolation, traveling only from their hotels to stadiums and back. To maintain social distancing guidelines at stadiums, ESPN reported, players could sit apart from one another in empty stands, and mound visits could be banned. MLB could also implement an electronic strike zone, which it has tested in independent leagues, to maintain distance between the home plate umpire and catcher.
However, as of Tuesday, the union had not begun full-scale canvassing of its membership about players’ willingness to be isolated from their families, potentially for months. Among those whose wives are expecting to deliver this summer are arguably the best pitcher, Gerrit Cole, and best position player, Mike Trout, in the game.
“I think that’s going to be a case-by-case issue,” Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who is expected to miss the 2020 season while recovering from elbow surgery, told Boston-area reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be tough. I don’t know if I could look at my kids just through a screen for four or five months. … I think there’s a lot of figuring out to do.”
The plan could also be contingent upon advances in the availability and timely turnaround of coronavirus testing, because MLB probably would not move forward if its plan would divert necessary resources from the general public. The plan would also face serious economic issues, requiring MLB and union officials to agree to a split in revenue that would no longer include the lucrative gate receipts from fans.
When MLB and the union in late March agreed to a temporary economic plan, which fronted $170 million in 2020 salaries to the players, the deal reportedly included a provision saying both parties would be willing to meet in good faith to discuss “the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at substitute neutral sites.”
And when the choice is framed as finding middle ground on sharing revenue vs. walking away with nothing, it becomes clear that even a difficult, obstacle-filled path to playing games in 2020 is better than no path.
MLB, of course, would also have to account for the possibility of one or more players testing positive for the coronavirus despite the many precautions. Such a scenario led to a pause in plans for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball to return; three players from one team tested positive, leading NPB to quarantine that squad and delay the proposed start of the season.
Yet another, obvious problem — one that not even dramatically expanded rosters would solve — could move to the forefront as games in dome-less spring training stadiums continue into the summer months: Average high temperatures in Phoenix are 104 degrees in June and 106 in July.