On Monday, it came out that Major League Baseball is considering a radical if not completely insane idea to make the 2020 season happen in this age of coronavirus: put everybody needed for the season in Phoenix, separated from as many non-baseball people as possible, and start the season there in empty stadiums normally reserved for the Diamondbacks, spring training, and perhaps other teams (presumably referring to Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University, the two Division I schools in Phoenix). Players, coaches, training staff, other personnel, and perhaps even families would be lodged in spring training facilities or bought-out hotels. Games would be played in the available stadiums, perhaps as many as three a day depending on scheduling.
It is, of course, a completely insane idea. Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk is right in calling it pure madness. There are so many things that could go horribly wrong with it. Perhaps not surprisingly, MLB is already stressing that it is only being considered and is in no way decided upon.
But, what the hell, let’s say that it actually does happen despite everything. How are they going to lay down the league?
It stands to reason that the usual Cactus League teams would keep their usual spring training facilities as their home bases, save for the Diamondbacks themselves, who would use Chase Field. It would also stand to reason that to make the “tripleheader of games” idea possible, they’d want to spread out the time zones of the “home” teams so that a East Coast team could still have most of their home games at a reasonable hour back in the home cities.
So, going through the available stadiums in Phoenix, I’ve assigned hypothetical places for teams. I used a rule of thumb as assuming that each site (with the exception of Chase Field) could ‘handle’ the number of MLB teams it usually does plus one. Teams in bold are the ordinary residents of those places during the spring.
Chase Field (3): Arizona Diamondbacks (are usually at Salt River during spring), St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (3): Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves
Sloan Park (2): Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox
Camelback Ranch (3): Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets
Goodyear Ballpark (3): Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates
Surprise Stadium (3): Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays
Tempe Diablo Stadium (2): Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays
American Family Fields of Phoenix (2): Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins
Peoria Sports Complex (3): San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles
Hohokam Stadium (2): Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies
Scottsdale Stadium (2): San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals
Phoenix Municipal Stadium (Arizona State): Houston Astros/Overflow
Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark (Grand Canyon University): Detroit Tigers/Overflow
You’ll notice that I have the two Division I college stadiums set as “overflow”. That would mean that they’d also serve as back-up locations in case a stadium is too overbooked for a day. Other stadiums would also act as overflows as necessary, but since the college stadiums would only have one assigned team they’d be the first ones used.
Also, it should be noted that I’d imagine that Chase Field would end up being a venue for all the teams (for reasons I’ll get to later), but for the sake of this article I’m going with the three teams I have assigned.
So, let’s just say that somehow this DOES happen. What would a hypothetical “opening day” look like? Just for fun, I’ve randomly picked out June 6th, a Saturday, and assumed that MLB just picks up the schedule where it was and figures out the rest later on.
The schedule for that day (Eastern Time/Mountain Time) could look something like this:
2 p.m. (11 a.m.) Cardinals at Pirates at (overflow) Chase Field
5 p.m. (2 p.m.) Tigers at White Sox at Camelback Ranch
Approx. 7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Rays at Yankees at Chase Field
7 p.m. (4 p.m.). Brewers at Red Sox at Sloan Park
7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Mariners at Marlins at American Family Fields of Phoenix
7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Phillies at Braves at Talking Stick
7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Rangers at Blue Jays at (overflow) Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark
7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Astros at Orioles at Peoria Sports Complex
7 p.m. (4 p.m.) Mets at Nationals at Scottsdale Stadium
8 p.m. (5 p.m.) Angels at Twins at (overflow) Phoenix Municipal Stadium
8 p.m. (5 p.m.) Indians at Royals at Surprise Stadium
8 p.m. (5 p.m.) Cubs at Reds at Goodyear Ballpark
Approx. 10 p.m. (7 p.m.) Rockies at Dodgers at Camelback Ranch
10 p.m. (7 p.m.) Giants at Athletics at Hohokam Stadium
Approx. 11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) Padres at Diamondbacks at Chase Field
So, looking at this schedule, you are probably going like: “Okay, this will be awkward, but it’s do-able!”
Well, yes, in theory. Except if it were to happen, it wouldn’t be theoretical any more. It’d be real, and that means a few VERY big issues.
Sure, there are the obvious ones that deal with logistical and moral dilemma: whether players would be willing to leave their families, what would happen if somebody tested positive for COVID-19, who and how everyone would be isolated, how teams would handle filling roster spots after injuries (presumably some type of slimmed down AAA team acting as a taxi squad), whether it is morally right to be doing this at all given that people are dying out there, the list goes on. Even if we were to magically wave a wand and make all those other issues disappear, there is one issue that makes the plan unworkable.
What I’m talking about here is a more physical one. As Elliot Gould’s character of Reuben says in Ocean’s Eleven, even if you get past all of the casino’s security, rob it, and get out of the front door… you’re still in the middle of the desert!
And, make no mistake, Phoenix is a goddamn desert. Take this opening day that theoretically is June 6. On June 6, 2019, the high temperature in Phoenix was 103 degrees. The low was 77 degrees. If you were to bring this to 2020, it would mean every game save for the Chase Field games, the two outdoor 10 P.M. games “hosted” by West Coast teams, and possibly the 8 p.m. local games would be taking place at least partly in heat that could be charitably described as “the devil’s jock-strap.” Never mind the coronavirus, players would be in danger of dying from heatstroke!
(This, by the way, is why I imagine that Chase Field would end up being a rotating venue without a “home” team, as rotating it would allow every team at least the occasional chance of air-conditioned relief.)
The obvious way, of course, to get around this is to play only night games aside from some games in Chase Field. However, that means games starting late on the East Coast, which wouldn’t do well with TV, which without fans is basically the only way the owners are supposed to make money and pay salaries. In other words: that ain’t happening.
Now, there could be a way around this, but it’d require them to take the MLB quarantine bubble to somewhere else.
Greater Los Angeles, for example, is the site of two MLB stadiums (three if you want to go full freaky and frankenstein the LA Coliseum again), 10 Division I baseball programs, the MLB Urban Youth Academy, and a few other high-quality amateur or semi-pro fields. What’s more, the weather in LA is usually in the 70s during that time!
Of course, the thing is that Greater Los Angeles is a lot bigger than Phoenix, has (so far) been hit harder by COVID-19 than Phoenix, has worse traffic, doesn’t have the spring training facilities that can used for conditioning, housing, etc.
Okay, then how about the Gulf Coast of Florida? After all, that is also spring training territory. While using the entire Grapefruit League wouldn’t make sense given that the coasts of Florida are three hours away from each other, putting it just on the western side would put 10 spring facilities as well as Tropicana Field all within at most two hours from each other. Throw in Al Lang Stadium (a former spring training facility now partly converted for use by Tampa’s soccer team but which still seems to have enough of a diamond shape to be used for baseball with some work), Jack Russell Stadium (the former Phillies spring home that is still well-maintained and even was used by the Dunedin Blue Jays in 2019 due to renovations in Dunedin), Henley Field (a classic old ballpark now used for D2 baseball which was once used by the Tigers and which has occasionally been taken over by them again during renovations at their usual spring place), Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven (former Indians training site), and the D1 ballfields at USF and FGCU and you have 17 possible places for games- even more than Arizona!
Even if you were to cut it down to just the Tampa Bay area itself, you’d get Tropicana Field plus five-to-seven spring training facilities (depending on whether you’d count Bradenton and Sarasota as the Tampa Bay area). Add in USF and the former spring facilities and you’d have 11-to-13 possible places, or roughly around the number that Phoenix has.
So what’s the issue with Tampa? For one thing, some of those old ballparks I included in the count aren’t used for spring games anymore for a reason. Having everyone on eastern time would mean that west coast “home” games would have to start around 10 p.m. local, which may not work depending on certain ordinances in Florida.
Another reason? Rain. That’s probably the biggest issue with Tampa (besides all the other issues about holding this enterprise in the first place). Every year during spring training, there’s a day or two (or three) where seemingly every Grapefruit League game gets rained out. Well, guess what, it rains more in the summer in the Tampa area than it does in the spring.
So… what does all this mean?
It means, basically, that baseball is stuck with lots of bad choices. Even if they somehow miraculously get everything else in order (and I doubt they will) and if it is deemed appropriate to move forward (which is highly up in the air), the fact is that holding essentially an entire season in one city is tough to do while still making it feasible financially and physically to do so. So ultimately, the question is… how far are Major League Baseball and its players willing to go to have a 2020 season of any sort of meaningful length?
I suspect that, as the crisis continues, we’ll sooner or later get the answer.