Welcome to MLB’s freak-show season! Now buckle up.

Against all odds and perhaps much common sense, the Major League Baseball season starts tonight. There have been odd MLB seasons before, but this one will take the cake.

After all, while there have been times where it wasn’t clear in spring training where a team would be playing, never in modern times has a team been homeless on opening day, as the Toronto Blue Jays (the “RefuJays”) are now. Plans to play in Pittsburgh went bust. The next plan, in Baltimore, is still in flux and would have to pass inspection from local and state authorities.

If it doesn’t, it is likely that that the Blue Jays are playing in a AAA stadium Buffalo. Sahlen Field in Buffalo is likely the most MLB-ready minor league stadium, certainly on the East Coast. It was built as an effort to lure an expansion team in the late 80s and early 90s. However, that team never came, so the facilities have never been upgraded to modern MLB standards. Modifications would have to be made.

If that doesn’t work… who knows? Perhaps they’ll go to Dunedin in COVID-infested Florida. Or maybe, in an unthinkable situation, they’ll have to be a travel team, playing all games on the road. While there have been teams like the Road Warriors and Samurai Bears in independent leagues, there hasn’t been a true travel team in MLB since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders became a road team later in the season simply because they sucked so much and drew flies (which, of course, makes it hard for a spider to eat).

Even putting aside the Jays, though, this is still going to be a strange season. After all, it turns out that we still might see enlarged playoffs. Yes, we are just hours from starting and we don’t even know how the playoffs will work yet.

And then, well, there’s everything else.

So, in closing, the 2020 MLB season is about to finally beginning. It’s going to be freaky. Buckle up.

 

There’s no way this freak-show works, but might as well enjoy it

Baseball is back, with lots of special rules for the age of pandemic. A whole manual of them, in fact.

Alas, there’s no way it is going to work, if it even starts at all. Based on recent trends with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the Southern and Southwestern parts of the United States, it seems entirely likely that the already-delayed 2020 season will be delayed again or just outright cancelled.

Just look at the numbers and where things are headed. Trends in Houston are said to be pointing towards numbers that could be among the worst in the world. Twenty-six states, according to Johns Hopkins, have seen a rise in cases since last week, and 11 of those states have Major League Baseball teams. One open-source projection site that utilizes machine learning in making predictions estimates that by July 24 (which will be the opening day for most teams) over 1.9 million Americans could have active infections at that time. In places like Florida and Georgia, that site estimates that around 1% of the population could be actively infected by the coronavirus. While that doesn’t seem that big, keep in mind that even with the super stripped-down operations that MLB will have in place there will still presumably be more than 100 people in a ballpark at any given time, and so statistically with those rates of infection at least one of them could be expected to have the virus.

Oh, and it’s still not clear if the Blue Jays will even be allowed to play in Canada.

And, of course, even if they do play, it’s going to be, to put it mildly, a freak-show. There will be few if any fans. The (stupid) man-on-second-to-start-extras rule will be around. The NL will have a DH. Games will only be played in-division and in the cross-league equivalent. And, of course, there will be all the little things in place to keep human contact to a minimum, like not having players being allowed to bring other players their sunglasses or gloves at the end of an inning.

But, hey, it’ll be baseball. So if we do get it, enjoy it… because who the hell knows what’s going to happen once the CBA finishes up.

 

On this whole mess, and why it makes expansion inevitable

It has not been a good year for Major League Baseball. To be fair, it has not been a good year for human civilization in general, but even before the coronavirus crisis and the fallout from the George Floyd incident, baseball was having a rough year. Now it seems trivial, but earlier this year the biggest issue facing baseball was arguably that they’d let a team that was running the biggest sign-stealing operation in decades off with a relative slap on the wrist.

Remember that? Those were, amazingly, now the good old days. Now? Well, because of the usual toxic mix that comes with billionaires and millionaires fighting over money, there’s a chance that no season will take place, or will be replaced by some sort of 48-game glorified miniseason.

(An aside: Why is it that inevitably the players get blamed? The owners have way more money and usually are far more ruthless and cruel in these negotiations than the players.)

While we cannot guess whether a 48-game season would be considered a “better than nothing” hunger-crop meal enough to satisfy the public, a full-on cancellation would be the biggest blow to baseball’s intangible stature since at least the 1994 strike and possibly even the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Given that baseball’s current intangible stature in much of the country outside of the die-hard fans can best be described as “Present-day episodes of The Simpsons where plenty of people still watch and even more are glad they are on but not as many people tune in unless if something big or unusual happens,” that would be… bad.

Oh, and unlike those previous apocalypses (apocalypsii?), there is no Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken or 1998 HR race walking through that door to save the day.

Now, there is an argument still to be made that it is not as bleak as it looks. As labor lawyer and Baseball Prospectus contributor Eugene Freedman notes on his Twitter feed, labor negotiations are an entirely different beast from the negotiations (player contracts, trades, etc.) that sportswriters have to usually cover, and so the framing often is prone to hyperbolic statements and leaked comments that make it seem far more hopeless than it actually is. There is some truth to this: I can vaguely remember 2002, where it looked like a work-stoppage was all-but-guaranteed. Similar to now, there were comments about how poorly baseball would look by stopping play in a national crisis (in that case the early years of the War on Terror), and yet it seemed both sides seemed headed towards a cliff.  Yet, at the last minute, a deal was struck, peace was ensured, and the games went on. It is entirely possible such an occurrence will repeat in 2020.

Except, of course, there is another lingering issue: the current collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021, so even if everything comes out of this current crisis hunky-dory, we get to do this all over again at the end of next season.

So, what does this all mean? It means, oddly enough, that we’re going to see more Major League Baseball, because it makes expansion inevitable. It may be in a previous MLB city like Montreal, or a new one like Portland or Charlotte. It could even be in a new country entirely like Monterrey, Mexico. Regardless of where the new teams go or what form the divisions move to as a result of it, though, it will happen. Here’s why:

  1. Immediate money. Of course! History has shown in the past that one of the easiest ways for baseball owners to get some quick cash is to expand. It’s also one of the quickest way for the union to make money, as more teams means more roster spots and thus more union members. It’s not a new phenomena. The 1993 expansion that brought in the Marlins and Rockies was partly a way for the owners to raise money to pay collusion debt. Although the 1997 expansion wasn’t directly a result of trying to recoup money from the ’94 strike and the after-effects (the expansion committee had been formed before the ’94 season even began), it certainly didn’t hurt. Even most of the earlier expansions had roots that weren’t so much benevolence as business interest: the first expansions that brought in teams like the Angels, Senators (now Rangers), Mets and Colt .45s (now Astros) were done as a way to head-off threats to create a third major league.
  2. Minor Leagues. The other big pre-coronavirus crisis that baseball was facing was the plan to contract the minor leagues. The coronavirus essentially knocked out the political and financial leverage that MiLB had to effectively fight it, and it is now all-but-inevitable. Major League Baseball expansion, however, would also mean minor league expansion, which MLB could use as a public relations olive-branch to ensure that some of the places that lose their MiLB teams will only be without affiliated baseball for a few years.
  3. Increased attendance/revenue. More teams means more games which means more fans means more revenue. Duh. Given that MLB will definitely see a drop in attendance in the coming years both because of the uncertainty of when/if a coronavirus vaccine will be available as well as disgust from this whole mess, the increase that would come from expansion would be in the owners and players interest.
  4. Public relations in general. Oh, there was less baseball? Now there’s more baseball, and in more cities that MLB had previously.

Now, perhaps everything ends up alright. Even then, though, the fact is that MLB has lost a lot of revenue this year, and the owners will want to make it all up.

In other words: expansion is coming. Expect it.

 

 

Figuring out Arizona Major League Baseball (and how it is doomed)

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.

Cancel (almost) Everything

On Tuesday, I said that Opening Day will not take place. At the time, it was mostly figurative, at least in America, and it seemed that while the big importance of Opening Day (capitalized) wouldn’t take place it seemed likely that the season would still start on time, albeit in a more depressing manner than usual thanks to the coronavirus.

Now, though, I think that we won’t even be seeing an opening day (not capitalized) as scheduled, much less an Opening Day. In fact, I think it would be malpractice to have it.

This realization came last night. I’m not sure when, but it was probably when a NBA game inexplicably postponed at the last second, a player tested positive for COVID19, and the entire season was suspended all in the space of what felt like a half-hour. Oh, and Tom Hanks announced he tested positive as well.

The average NBA arena holds between 15 and 20 thousand fans. Even the smallest MLB stadiums (Tropicana Field with tarps up, for example) holds thousands more people. Public Health experts in cities seem to differ on what level of crowd is too big, but even the largest estimates are around 1,000 people, or WAY WAY less than any major league stadium. Even a fan-less game may break the level of a safe gathering, given the amount of support staff, journalists, and security.

Yes, it is true that most COVID19 cases are minor, and even those in dangerous categories are more likely to live than not. But think of it this way: you are also more likely to get Christian Yelich out more often than not, but nobody would want to give him the opportunity to bat in the ninth against them.

So what I’m saying is: shut it down. Shut it all down. Unless it is either something  something essential or something that can be done entirely over television or the internet without any large amount of human interaction, it can wait.

It is said that baseball is life. That is true, but you also need life to have baseball, so there is no sense in putting anyone’s life at risk.

So shut it down. Cancel everything, and perhaps we can try again in a month or two.

Opening Day will not take place (Or: Baseball in the Time of Coronavirus)

Opening Day will not take place in 2020.

Oh, sure, an opening day (uncapitalized) will take place. The Major League Baseball season will take place, and there will be a day where the first games take place.

No, I’m talking about Opening Day (capitalized), the holiday where the long winter is finally truly banished on a joyous late-March-or-early-April day full of ace-on-ace pitching matchups, red-white-and-blue bunting, and a sense of hope for everyone. Yes, even the Orioles… at least for a couple of innings.

That Opening Day will not take place. You know the reason, if you’ve paid any attention to the news. I won’t say it here right now for at this point it would be redundant. The reason why Opening Day won’t take place, especially in places like Japan or Korea.

Opening Day might not happen in San Jose, depending on how long the crisis lasts. The A-ball Giants don’t have their home opener until April 17, but given the scary projections from epidemiologists, we have no idea what the world may be like on that day.

It is entirely possible that in the coming days and weeks Seattle, New York City, or other great cities may have the same rules then as San Jose has imposed now. Perhaps those may come before opening day, definitively cancelling Opening Day in those cities.

Ultimately, though, Opening Day has already been cancelled. For even if the gates are open and the people can come, the feelings of the day have been lost this year. For instead of hope, optimism, and rebirth from the long winter, there will instead be worry and fear.

Questions will race: Can I shake the hand of the person in the seat next to me, who I haven’t seen since last season? Did the person selling the hot dog wash their hands correctly? Should that old-timer who has been coming to games for as long as anyone can remember even be here?

Yes, Opening Day is cancelled, and we can only fathom when the long winter will truly end.