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Why an MLB season seems increasingly unlikely in 2020

MLB, season
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When MLB suspended the start of the 2020 season on March 12, baseball fans hoped that it would only be a temporary measure and Opening Day would return within weeks. But as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens across the globe, it’s becoming increasingly likely that there won’t be an MLB season in 2020.

The pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic took off quickly in the United States. The first positive case tied to community spread occurred in California and came on Feb. 26. The coronavirus outbreak went across the country with all 50 states reporting confirmed cases and the pandemic only got worse.

  • On March 8, the Center for Disease Control reported 500 confirmed cases.
  • After Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely.
  • On March 12, the NHL, XFL, and MLB suspended their seasons. The NCAA suspended spring sports and canceled March Madness on the same day, decisions that will cost the NCAA more than $400 million.
  • According to Johns Hopkins University, there are now more than 180,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the United States as of March 31.
  • New York (75,000), New Jersey (16,636), California (6,909), Michigan (6,498) and Massachusetts (5,752) lead the country in confirmed cases.
  • More than 80% of Americans are living under a stay-at-home order, per Business Insider. Among them, Virginia issued the policy until at least June 10.
  • In Canada, Toronto announced it is suspending all public events until June 30.

The United States could see millions of coronavirus cases, according to the nation’s top infectious disease expert. It’s clear that things are going to get far worse before they get better, yet MLB is still trying to put out hope for baseball returning in the near future. All of this at a time when some of its biggest markets are suffering the most from the pandemic.

False hope: As all of this is going on, there is still a belief in baseball that Opening Day could be weeks away. Even while acknowledging some of the precautions that would need to be made, some MLB executives seem to provide false hope to fans.

  • One team executive told The New York Post that MLB will be able to play games without crowds in a matter of weeks.
  • MLB originally planned for its suspension to be a two-week delay. It pushed back the optimistic return days later.
  • After the league initially expressed hope for Opening Day to be held in May, now league officials and players are hoping the 2020 season could start in early June.

MLB is in the position where a shortened season is the league’s best-case scenario. It’s why the league and its players agreed to a deal specifically made for the 2020 season, but even the deal itself hints at the likelihood of there being no baseball this year.

The plan: This is an unprecedented moment in history, so MLB can’t be faulted for struggling with how to handle it early on. The league deserves credit for some of the steps it took to stand by its workforce, but the plan in place also hints at further uncertainty for the season.

  • The MLB Amateur Draft will be held in July, no matter what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the draft will be cut from 40 rounds to potentially five. Furthermore, teams will allocate draft bonuses over time with players receiving 10% upfront, 45% in July ’21 and 45% in July ’22
  • MLB pledged $170 million towards player salaries that the MLBPA would divide amongst its players in April and May, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan. However, players now can’t sue the league for their full salaries, which will be prorated off the number of games played.
  • Accounting for the worst-case scenario (a canceled season), MLB allowed players to receive the same service time they had the previous season. Stars like Mookie Betts, Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto, who are in the last year of their contracts, will become free agents next offseason even if there isn’t an actual season played in 2020.
  • MLB teams have ensured non-player employees will be paid through April. However, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, furloughs, salary cuts and deferred payments could become an option in May.
  • All 30 MLB teams agreed to put $1 million each towards providing financial support for their employees during the suspended season.
  • The league agreed to pay each of its minor-league players $400 per week for the next two months.
  • MLB outlined conditions it needs for the season to resume, including there being no travel restrictions in the U.S. and a consensus from medical experts that players and staffers wouldn’t be at risk.

The deal does its best to make it clear that MLB is targeting a return in June. But the realistic view inside the league is that a return in July is far more likely

As detailed by The Athletic’s Andy McCullough, MLB still faces the unknown of players getting sick and the potential fallout. These guys are like families, spending countless hours together on a daily basis during the season and COVID-19 spreads far easier than anyone imagined.

The problem: Finding a consensus among medical experts regarding the safety to return to some form of normalcy is a gigantic condition. Even more so at a time when experts don’t know when this will end or if it will come back stronger in the fall. Of course, MLB also wants an abundance of COVID-19 testing kits, medical resources and treatment plans at its disposal if an outbreak hits the league.

  • There remains a national shortage of testing kits, including on materials like swabs that are needed for testing.
  • Doctors and nurses are being forced to reuse medical masks and many even have to make masks due to a lack of N95 masks available.
  • Ventilators, which are critical for COVID-19 patients experiencing significant respiratory issues, are in short supply with hospitals across the country desperately needing them.

This isn’t about having games without fans in the stands or reporters in the press box. If the pandemic doesn’t dramatically improve within the next few months and MLB plays games at empty stadiums in isolated locations, the sport will still run into problems.

MLB could already be in danger of losing billions of dollars if games are held without fans this season. The league would also be asking players to risk their health, while potentially needing to be isolated from their families, while they play a season. As the players and coaches risk their health, MLB would be hoping it could get its hands on thousands of tests to frequently test all personnel to make sure they don’t have the coronavirus.

If a single player gets sick, which could certainly happen, then baseball would need to be shut down again. We saw how quickly the virus spread through the NBA and even greater examples exist across the globe. There also remains no cure for the virus and while athletes might be okay, it’s been proven that anyone’s life could be at risk.

The bottom line: This is not the scenario anyone wants to be in. Baseball is meant to be an escape from reality, allowing fans and player to get their mind off things and just enjoy the beautiful game. It’s understandable why MLB also keeps promoting that a season will happen, because they know what it means to everyone.

Unfortunately, it’s time for everyone to start preparing for the worst-case scenario. Hope is an important thing to hold in times like this, but it’s just as important to recognize the gravity of this situation. This is a game we all love, but the health and safety of everyone in this country must come first. If more people will get through this by baseball not being played in 2020, that is a cost we must willingly accept.

Given everything that’s happening right now, it’s unlikely we see baseball this season. Whenever MLB does return, though, we can love it more than ever after knowing what it was like to be without it for so long.