ESPN: Is pandemic America ready for … Monastery League Baseball?

Updated: 2020-04-07 17:45:03

Out: “Go the distance.” In: “Go inside the biosphere.” ESPN reported late last night that one major sports league has a plan to launch a new season. Rather than play at all of the regular stadiums, however, Major League Baseball would play all of its games in Phoenix — where hot weather might keep the coronavirus at bay.

There is just one catch, pardon the pun. Players, coaches, umpires, and staff will have to live in quarantine for the duration of the months-long season. Call it Monastery League Baseball:

Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May and has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Though the plan has a number of potential stumbling blocks, it has emerged above other options as the likeliest to work and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials, sources said.

The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the greater Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.

The rewards for pulling this off successfully would be enormous. No other sport has a plan for dealing with the pandemic, and no other team sport has as much distance between athletes as baseball. (Tennis, golf, and other individual sports are more suited for distance, of course.) The NFL doesn’t anticipate returning even to training camp until widespread and repeated testing become available, which means that we might lose the whole season regardless of whether the rest of the economy gets back to normal:

The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, who is spearheading the league’s response to the new coronavirus pandemic, said widespread testing would have to be available before the reopening of the league could be contemplated. He cautioned against assuming that earlier comments from league officials about the league’s focus on starting the season on time mean it will definitely happen. …

The widespread availability of point of care testing — where a test could be administered, and the results returned quickly — will be critical to decisions about when teams can report to facilities, Sills said. Such tests would have to be administered to players and other team personnel, perhaps frequently. Those tests are not currently available. Sills said he is confident they eventually will be, but he can’t say when. Another consideration: The league will have to make competitive balance decisions about allowing facilities to re-open if there are more stringent lockdown rules in place in some parts of the country than others.

“As long as we’re still in a place where when a single individual tests positive for the virus that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport,” Sills said. “Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”

MLB’s proposal solves that problem by putting everyone in strict isolation — for the whole season. And when they say “isolation,” they mean isolation … from everyone else they know, for months on end:

The logistics to pull off such a plan would be enormous and cumbersome on the league side and require the buy-in of players, who sources expect to be skeptical of separating from their families for an indefinite amount of time — perhaps as long as 4½ months, if the inability to stem the coronavirus outbreak keeps teams from playing in their home stadiums in 2020.

Has anyone actually read Ball Four? The appetites of athletes in professional sports go well beyond the dinner table, not to be too indelicate. Basically, the league would be asking them to live like monks, even those who are married. How long would their forbearance last? If they want a paycheck in 2020, perhaps long enough:

Still, there is hope among leadership on both sides that the combination of receiving paychecks for playing and baseball’s return offering a respite to a nation beset by the devastation of COVID-19 would convince players to agree to the plan, sources said.

Appealing to both their wallets and their patriotism is likely going to be an effective argument. In its way, it’s a kind of wartime service; soldiers go off for months at a time on tours of duty, and they don’t get paid anywhere near as much as these athletes do. If they can deal with a few months of enforced chastity, their payoff will be well worth it. One question will be just how many players each team will need to carry, though. MLB’s use of its minor leagues for replacements due to bad performance and injury is significant, and a 14-day quarantine before joining a team won’t be practical. They’ll need to use an expanded roster to get around that issue, which means the costs will go up.

That won’t matter much if this succeeds, because the revenues should be enormous. MLB will be in position to score a windfall, as it will likely be literally the only game in town. After fading somewhat against the glamor and cachet of the NFL and NBA, this would make baseball America’s Game all over again — even if it’s not quite America’s Pastime at the moment in the local fields.

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