Games or not, baseball’s financial challenges will linger beyond 2020

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. (LM Otero/AP)

TORONTO — Dr. Nathan Stall grew up during the Toronto Blue Jays’ glory days and counts Joe Carter’s World Series-winning homer among the most enduring memories of his childhood. Working long hours as a front-line healthcare worker amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he really misses sports in general, and baseball specifically.

That’s why between shifts at Mount Sinai Hospital, where he specializes in geriatrics and internal medicine, and some epidemiological modelling work for Ontario tracking personal protective equipment supplies and critical care resources, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the Arizona plan Major League Baseball is considering as one of its contingencies for 2020.

The tug of war in his mind is impossible to reconcile.

“It’s not going to be bulletproof,” he says of the possibility that MLB isolates the 30 big-league teams in one or two locations to play a truncated season at empty stadiums. “The Canadian physician/scientist in me says it’s not going to happen. But the baseball fan trying to put on a MAGA hat in me says it will.

“That’s the struggle I wake up with everyday wondering if baseball is going to return.”

As U.S. President Donald Trump continues to push for a quick economic reopening down south, in contrast to Canada’s wise caution, there appears to be some momentum towards a baseball season of some sort taking place in 2020.

A particularly optimistic tidbit came via ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who quoted Rob Manfred as saying, “I fully anticipate baseball will return this season,” in an email to staffers. Still, as varying degrees of work continues on five-to-seven different return scenarios, the fragility of the pandemic’s containment is an ongoing threat, while the economic pressures on the sport keep mounting.

The Blue Jays are among the majority of teams that have committed to pay their employees through May 31, even though Manfred has given clubs the option to suspend Uniform Employee Contracts starting May 1. With revenues essentially at zero and clubs committing to payments for major- and minor-league players through May, other clubs are already facing cash crunches that will be only exacerbated if a season takes place without fans in the stands.

Fans celebrate following the Blue Jays’ ALDS Game 5 win over the Texas Rangers in 2015 at Rogers Centre. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

To that end, positions are already being taken by owners and players on whether contracted salaries – slated to be prorated on the number of games played under an agreement reached last month – can be further reduced.

Bigger picture, however, is that the loss of gate and concession revenue most likely won’t be limited to just 2020, as full stadiums may not be possible for another year or two, perhaps longer, meaning this isn’t a one-time fight. To those expecting a quick return to our previous normal in all realms of life, Stall cautions that “we’re not looking at an on-off switch.”

“We’re looking at sort of a slow trickle back to where we were before the pandemic, but it will probably never get to that same level of what we thought was normal,” he continues. “(For sports) we’re not just talking about this season. We’re talking about a fundamentally different sport experience for the two-to-three years to come. Maybe forever. I’m hesitant to give knee-jerk reactions and I don’t want the world to change fundamentally forever, but this concept of the pre-pandemic life being a fiction, there’s something to be contemplated about that.”

That’s certainly a worst-case point of view, but given how quickly and widely the coronavirus spread before its discovery, there can be no semblance of normalcy without herd immunity. A vaccine is likely 12-18 months away and even once proven both effective and safe in humans, an infrastructure must be created to immunize nearly 40 million Canadians, more than 300 million Americans, and almost eight billion people globally.

Factor in the absence of a definitive measure for how many people have gained immunity through exposure — 75 members of the Blue Jays have participated in the antibody testing Major League Baseball has signed up for — and there’s no way large gatherings are happening responsibly any time soon.

“People have talked about the need for what’s called intermittent physical distancing, the need for society to retreat, maybe not to the lockdown extent, but to some extent, through 2022 or 2023 to prevent the virus from flaring back up again,” says Stall. “How does it flare up? It flares up once people gather in large crowds, giving it the opportunity to spread rapidly from one person to another.”

Even if things go especially well, the initial transition back to games with fans in the stands may require wide separations between seated groups, large gaps in concession lines, enforced hand-washing upon both entry and exit to the stadium.

Seats, railings and counters would need the type of antimicrobial coatings hospitals use, since the biggest threat comes from “the droplets that live on surfaces,” says Stall. “You touch them with your hands and then you wipe your face.”

All of which means baseball as an industry is facing extended financial duress and may need two-to-three years to fully recover economically, which will only further complicate the sport’s next collective bargaining agreement. The current deal, which players were already unhappy with, expires Dec. 1 2021 and that looms in the background of every discussion between the sides.

Players will understandably be wary about any givebacks, even when faced with current realities, yet with no gate revenue, TV-only baseball may not do a whole lot more than off-set salaries.

Now, there’s a tangible benefit to the sport in playing at break-even or in shallow red, as staying in front of the public by providing a necessary distraction in a difficult time will allow baseball to stay relevant.

But successfully executing something like the Arizona plan — in which MLB would essentially create a self-contained ecosystem to isolate players, coaches, staff and ancillary workers for an extended period — would require extraordinary co-operation.

And that’s where Stall, desperate as he is to have baseball back, keeps getting stuck.

“Any reintroduction of professional sports is not going to be without risks but it would need to rely on strictly isolating the whole MLB community, serial testing and trusting that people aren’t going to break that,” he says. “You’d have to get buy-in from the entire community and we’re not just talking about the players.”

On-field issues must be considered, too, from the proximity risks between umpire-catcher, catcher-batter, and baserunner-defender, to hygienic concerns such as pitchers licking their fingers for grip on the ball, wiping sweaty brows and constant spitting.

Lots of gross exists in the game, all complicated by the way COVID-19 can spread so easily without detection.

“How do you know that no one has it?” says Stall. “That’s what is so challenging.”

Eventually, there may be a solution for that, and for other issues, too, as the world throws its scientific and technological might at the coronavirus in pursuit of improvements in diagnostic testing, therapeutics and a vaccine. Developments in one or two areas would help speed the recovery. In their absence, however, all baseball can do is try to minimize risk and hope for the best in whatever restart is to come, just like the rest of us.

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