The plan is for July.
MLB is growing more hopeful it is going to play games this season and — while multiple scenarios are still being hashed out and continue to change regularly with new information regarding combat of the coronavirus pandemic — the most constant roadmap has regular-season games being played by early July and trying to return to home ballparks as soon as possible.
One executive emphasized the word “roadmap,” noting the continuing absence of firm plans. Yet, a return by early July is becoming a more prominent concept because, first, MLB is coming to believe there is a greater potential to play by then. And second, because if MLB plots a return in July it is easier to push back to August, than if it were, say, planning for an August return and suddenly it was more feasible to play in July.
One executive cautioned, “They are saying think spring training in June and play games in July, but not long ago they were saying think spring training in May and play games in June.”
But there is both more information now and, thus, more optimism. MLB, though, continues not to want to commit to a plan yet for three key reasons: 1. It does not want to appear callous with firm plans to return until local and federal officials state it is safe to do so and the sport is not taking medical personnel and testing away from those who more critically need it; 2. The longer MLB waits the more information it takes in, which makes it easier to formulate a more solid strategy; 3. MLB knows a next negotiation on player safety and pay still must be undertaken with the union, and MLB does not want to start that without a much firmer grasp of logistics and revenues, among other items.
Nevertheless, a few pieces have become clearer even in the last week, notably that teams want to try to play as many games in their home stadiums as possible. That is where they have their familiar medical personnel, any equipment specific to the team and any chance to derive financial benefits should fans at some point be allowed to return. Also, players are less likely to balk at returning if they can live in their homes rather than be isolated in hotels.
There is still a possibility that a first wave of games would take place in spring training sites in Arizona and Florida or perhaps those two places plus Texas and then spread to more home stadiums as more and more cities bless a return to play.
“There still are five or 10 scenarios being played out in one, two, three places,” said an executive familiar with MLB’s inner workings. “They are looking at June and looking at August starts. They are contemplating what if New York and California open up or just one or the other. They are talking, ‘Is it safer to travel by bus or plane, stay at home or a hotel?’ They are going through all the logistics and scenarios.”
Arizona, Florida and Texas provide plenty of potential parks and limited travel, when MLB is still trying to grasp, for example, whether it can safely do air travel, especially initially, or whether teams can stay in hotels for standard road games? But multiple officials who have been briefed said if air travel becomes more acceptable than the potential to begin a season in as many home parks as possible is not off the board — and is the preference.
“We want to play as many games as possible,” one executive said. “But say we knew that we could return to all or most home stadiums, but it would mean holding off another two weeks, should we just wait and do that? That is going to have to be considered.”
If air travel/hotel accommodations are an issue early, MLB recognizes it might have to scramble its current division alignment to one more geographically favorable. So, for example, it is possible because of proximity that the Mets and Yankees could end up in the same division in 2023. But as one official said, “Time is on our side. We don’t have to make those types of decisions now. We can keep gathering information to make the best choice possible.”
What remains certain is that the initial games will not have spectators and be mainly TV-only affairs. But MLB is hoping that over time, fans could return to stadiums, albeit, probably having to practice social distancing (think way fewer seats occupied) and perhaps wearing masks. One club executive raised this concern that would come with fans in this environment: Would you have to hire a greater number of ushers/security to keep fans from congregating too closely and would the cost and putting those people’s health at risk make it self-defeating?
Also, MLB officials believe the NBA — if it can work around how to play a sport with more contact than baseball — could return first because that league is closer to both its playoffs and the start of another season and, thus, has greater incentive to get underway. MLB is comfortable with that, feeling it will learn lessons from the Korea Baseball Organization (which is in spring training and is set to begin the regular season May 5) and the NBA about how to handle issues such as testing and clubhouse crowds. MLB has been asking teams to provide an idea of the fewest number of personnel (not just players, but coaches, trainers, clubhouse attendants, etc.) that would be needed to stage spring training and a regular season.
This comes at a time when MLB has expanding optimism that there will be a spring training and regular season.
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