MLB is a guinea pig, a crash test dummy. The league is trying to learn in real time how to play a regular season in a pandemic, which falls into the category of trying to learn to swim while surrounded by great white sharks.
Maybe you will succeed, but good luck.
Additional members of the Cardinals traveling party were revealed to have tested positive Saturday after two St. Louis players were shown to have COVID-19 Friday. Thus, like Friday, the Cardinals-Brewers game Saturday was postponed. No word was given immediately about Sunday’s doubleheader, but it is hard to imagine that will be played.
If that proves true, 20 percent of the sport — six of the 30 teams — will have been parked this weekend due to coronavirus-related reasons.
Recognizing the urgency and the crisis point, commissioner Rob Manfred reached out Friday to Tony Clark to inform the head of the union that he could shut down the game in the coming week if the virus continues to devastate the sport. The hope was the Players Association would emphatically reiterate to its membership that the health and safety protocols must be followed without deviation.
A week of regular season play had educated central baseball on certain demographics that were not following the rules faithfully plus certain protocol-violating behaviors, especially during games, that were abundant. This is part of the ongoing education MLB is receiving to try to navigate this season and why the league does not want to simply surrender now despite having a wide outbreak on the Marlins and a potential one on the Cardinals.
MLB wants to believe better knowledge, practices and reinforcements will matter. For example, this week each team was ordered to install a compliance officer to demand greater adherence to the protocols. But according to ESPN, MLB also has informed its network partners that a shutdown could be coming as soon as Monday. Perhaps that is not for the season, but just for a week to try to regain equilibrium and command of what is going on before re-starting and taking the last best shot to play a 2020 season.
MLB is facing three critical issues as it decides what to do moving forward:
1. No matter what is done, is the virus just too rampant in the country to continue to play? The fact the United States has failed to contain the virus impacts all industries, including MLB. The sport was suspended in March and the virus is a far bigger problem now countrywide than then.
Once MLB decided to forego playing in bubbles, wide travel was necessary. Pick your reason why the bubble was eliminated. The players clearly did not want to be locked into one place for that extended period of time. At least some portion of ownership was still holding out hopes of drawing paying fans to games. There was never going to be enough suitable stadiums in locales not infested by the virus with favorable weather to allow it. Whatever the reason, the last two weeks exposed what happens when personnel go on the road.
It is worth remembering that first Canada, then Pennsylvania refused to allow the Blue Jays to play home games in Toronto, then Pittsburgh largely out of fear of traveling teams bringing the virus to the municipality. And we have had the Marlins do so in Philadelphia and now the Cardinals in Milwaukee. How long before more cities and states tell teams they do not want even regularly tested players visiting?
2. Is competitive integrity just too strained? This was already going to be an asterisk-magnet of a season with a 60-game schedule and reconfigured rules, including new edicts being added with the season already in progress such as seven-inning doubleheaders.
Now, the Phillies and the Marlins are at a week without playing minimum. Will the same be true for the Cardinals? The Blue Jays, Brewers and Nationals are collateral damage not playing for the weekend while other clubs, such as the Yankees, have had to rearrange their schedule to keep going.
MLB was hoping to use off days and doubleheaders to make up as much of the 60 games as possible. But that would place a real playing burden on those clubs. Plus, the Marlins and Cardinals are probably looking at having to reach deep into their satellite camp and/or the waiver wire to be able to field a team to play those games. And how competitive will those roster versions be? How fair will it be to, say, West division teams in both leagues who do not get to face the Marlins or Cardinals?
Also, will outbreaks of the virus convince more players to opt out of the season as Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz and — more vitally — star Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain did Saturday.
3. Is a forum being created to elevate the number of injuries, which not only harms this year but next year and individual careers? The number of pitching injuries, in particular, already is worrisome. The shut down, ramp up, shut down, ramp up quality of what has gone on since March is just not conducive to preparing to deliver major league pitches in a major league game.
Powerful agent Scott Boras, in a phone call Friday, recommended the sport take a one-week hiatus to help pitchers, in particular, get in more preparation time and then stretch the season into November to make up for lost games. MLB has shown no appetite to extend beyond October, concerned that in cooler weather the virus will worsen and that its national TV partners will not be able to easily reschedule broadcast times for playoff games.
The teams that have been shut down such as the Marlins and Phillies, in particular, have had little to no practice time this week to stay in game shape.
All of this leaves MLB at a crossroads, facing a crisis on multiple fronts and having to ask if enough can be learned in real time to feel confident about continuing on.