According to a report late Monday night from ESPN’s Jeff Passan, MLB and the MLBPA are discussing a radical plan that “has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials” and would enable the league to begin the 2020 regular season as early as next month (but possibly in early June). Under this plan, all teams would begin the season playing at empty ballparks in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. Those facilities would likely include Chase Field, the Diamondbacks’ air-conditioned, retractable-roof home ballpark; the 10 facilities across the Phoenix area that currently play host to Cactus League spring training games; and potentially other facilities — Phoenix Municipal Stadium, current home of Arizona State baseball, and GCU Ballpark, Grand Canyon University’s home diamond, come to mind if more fields are needed.
NEWS: Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are focusing on a plan backed by federal health officials that could have players in training camps by May and games soon thereafter.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) April 7, 2020
Details at ESPN on how MLB may return -- and the difficulty in doing so: https://t.co/zDoNa3k4pm
Under this plan, all involved parties — players, coaches, trainers, and other essential personnel —would be isolated at nearby hotels, leaving only when they have to go to a ballpark or team facility.
There’s already been concern on social media from fans, media members, and players about all participants being isolated from their families and largely stuck in hotel rooms for such a long period of time. Those concerns are absolutely valid, and they very well may prevent this plan from coming to fruition.
With that said, everybody who’s been playing or coaching in professional baseball for long enough has a certain level of experience being away from their families. They go on long road trips. They get sent to the minors or traded and aren’t able to immediately uproot a wife with a job or kids who are in school. Many international players are apart from their families for most of the year as they travel overseas to play baseball at the sport’s highest level.
Now, most players are not usually separated from their loved ones for months at a time, and it’s unfortunate to think about that being the case for anybody, especially when there’s so much concern around the world about the COVID-19 pandemic. But technology like FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom — as well as the ability to text and call to your heart’s content without the worry about long-distance fees or even overage charges — would make this scenario much more feasible and less heartbreaking than it would’ve been 20 or even 10 years ago, and the players might be more likely to agree to it than many of us are assuming, especially since most of them stand to gain millions of dollars by doing so, and because the best-case scenario seems to involve them returning to their home cities at some point during the season if it becomes safe to do so.
Passan’s report details some of the actions MLB could take to promote proper social distancing, all of which will likely look even more ridiculous in action than they sound on paper. However, we’re living in a time where extreme precautions need to be taken in order to stay safe and healthy, and it’s obviously much better for MLB to be safe than sorry with these things. Those changes could include balls and strikes being called by a robotic umpiring system rather than the home-plate umpire so that individual is able to stand six or more feet behind the catcher (this is one tweak that sounds like MLB using social distancing as an excuse to make a change they’ve been wanting to make for a while), mound visits by coaches and catchers being prohibited, players and team personnel sitting six feet apart in the stands rather than the dugout, and all doubleheader games (of which there would likely be many under this plan) being seven innings long.
There are many more questions relating to how the sport would be covered and distributed to the fans, who obviously won’t be able to attend the games in person and will have to watch on TV or the internet if they want to follow their favorite teams. It seems rather likely that broadcasters will work remotely if this plan comes to fruition, calling games from their homes or a studio in their home market, much like some of them have done in the past when MLB season openers, World Baseball Classic games, and postseason exhibitions have taken place in Japan and South Korea. However, camera operators and technical crew members would have to be at the stadiums, and it’s unclear if those individuals would be subject to the same isolation guidelines as players and team personnel. It also remains to be seen how beat writers would cover a season played under these stringent guidelines. Would teams set up pre- and postgame Zoom sessions with managers and players so media members could gather the quotes they need?
This plan is perhaps unrealistic, and it’s obviously far from perfect — for starters, the destruction of the traditional ballpark atmosphere due to the absence of fans would be drastic and perhaps make the game much less enjoyable. But having sports back, even in a significantly altered form, would certainly be a boost for many Americans, and it might even help baseball restore its status as “America’s Pastime.” If reputable medical personnel truly consider it to be a safe plan, it’s something worth thinking about.