Before it restarted this past week, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was asked what it would take for him to pull the chute on the season.
“If we have a team or two that’s really decimated with a number of people who had the virus and can’t play for any significant period of time, it could have a real impact on the competition, and we’d have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing,” Manfred said.
Me, I’d have said you should probably think very, very hard about what you’re doing before it goes sideways.
One assumes Manfred is thinking very, very hard right now, possibly while scrolling through LinkedIn to see if there are any commissioner jobs available in New Zealand, because his coronavirus doomsday scenario is here. MLB squeezed in only four days of baseball before it arrived.
On Sunday, four Miami Marlins players tested positive for the coronavirus. Nonetheless, the team played a game that day against the Phillies in Philadelphia.
By Monday morning, the Marlins had returned 14 positive tests. The team decided to stay in Philadelphia rather than return to Miami for its home opener against the Baltimore Orioles. That game was postponed.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees had already arrived in Philadelphia to play the Phillies. This now seems a little like crashing a dinner party at Typhoid Mary’s place.
By late morning, the Yankees-Phillies Monday night game had been postponed as well.
Now the Marlins are apparently going to forego their home opener and take a bus to Baltimore instead. So, as you can see, everything is going fine.
The only surprise here is how surprised some people seem to be. MLB’s COVID mitigation plan – or lack thereof – was transparently flawed from the outset.
As soon as MLB gave up on the bubble concept in June, it ought logically to have given up on the season as well.
There was no reasonable expectation that you could fly a thousand or so people around the United States, each of them coming into contact with hundreds of other people in a dozen different places, creating an exponential spiral of potential infection vectors, and not expect COVID to get in. Which it has.
There are two ways of looking at the trouble baseball is in now – logistically vs. holistically.
Logistically speaking, this sprint of a season has turned into orienteering in the dark. The Toronto Blue Jays are based in Buffalo. Miami is making stopovers in Baltimore. Games that are postponed now have to be wedged into schedules that have few holes to accommodate delays.
What if a bunch more Marlins test positive in the next day? What if some of the Phillies do as well? How are the Yankees going to make up those games? Once this ball gets rolling, it’s going to flatten your best-laid plans.
But were I in charge, logistics would not be where my head was at right now in the midst of my very, very hard thinking.
Choosing to concentrate on logistics assumes there will be no other COVID outbreaks along the way, which I think we can now pretty much guarantee there will be.
MLB started from a pristine position in terms of infection, sent all its teams out on a single road trip, and it’s already hit the wall. How do you think this is going to look after a few more spins around America?
From the perspective of MLB’s business, cancelling the season now would be calamitous. The league and its teams would have to return nearly all their broadcast money. Their stadiums would sit empty for at least another nine months.
The players will expect to be paid their negotiated wage, because it’s not their fault the bosses messed this up. That opens a new battlefront between management and the union one year before the collective bargaining agreement expires.
That’s before we consider the prestige lost if you are the one global league that could not figure this out. That in turn deepens the sense that, amongst the great American sporting traditions, baseball is the one in decline. You cannot underestimate how much ego plays into these decisions.
Cancelling now creates a cascading series of problems for baseball which, if not existential, are moving it in that direction.
But I would now call cancellation and its resultant headaches the good-case scenario of how this ends. There is no more best-case. That went out the window on Monday morning.
The pretty-good case would be rolling with this setback (ie, ignoring it); white-knuckling your way to October; hoping that nothing else goes badly wrong, while knowing something will; and getting down on your knees and praying to whatever god you worship that no one dies on your watch. Then finding out that, in the end, none of your nightmares became reality. That’s where baseball’s at as of this writing.
Then there’s worst-case.
Worst-case is that you do all of the above, and it happens again. This time much worse, while the pandemic is still tearing across the United States. Cities and states begin banning their own ball teams. Players revolt. Teams drop out of their own accord. A well-known star gets seriously ill and his enraged wife starts tweeting his decline. A beloved manager dies. Or two.
That is no longer a hyperbolic scenario. That is a genuine possibility.
Even if that possibility is not great, that is the scenario I’d be focused on if my reputation was based on how I handled this crisis. No one wants to be remembered as the guy who killed future Hall of Famer X because the playoff TV money was too hard to give back.
It brings to my mind an inscrutable quote from the late Dutch soccer genius Johan Cruyff (who was very fond of coining such sayings): “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.”
Though delightful, I never could figure out exactly what he meant by that. Possibly because I was thinking of it in a purely sporting context – don’t make that pass or don’t trade that player.
But when you consider it instead in the context of real life – for instance, you had a chance to pull the plug and instead walked yourself right into the biggest foreseeable disaster in baseball history – that quote starts making a lot of sense.