TORONTO – First things first, let’s just get through this COVID-19 outbreak. Difficult as it is to accept, there’s no living our lives as if everything is normal, pretending as if the calls for social distancing are some type of overreaction. Really, we can’t do enough of that right now.
Eventually, though, the coronavirus will pass, although it’s foolhardy to try and predict when that might be and what the landscape might look like by then. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that none of us have been through something like this before.
As such, everyone is making things up on the fly, and now is when we’ll really begin to grasp just how much we’ve all taken for granted in our privileged North American lives.
The sports world’s staggered reaction to the outbreak is reflective of that; the NBA only suspending its season Wednesday night once one of its players contracted the virus, the NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball, the laggard on that front, following suit Thursday.
NBA star Rudy Gobert’s diagnosis, revealed nearly simultaneously to that of actor Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson, helped make the abstract notion of a malicious pathogen working its way around the globe real for the masses. Man, if it could happen to them, it could happen to me!
The subsequent fallout changed sports’ role from happy distraction to influencer on social distancing, even if the leagues had to be dragged there, in part by government restrictions on the size of gatherings in some afflicted areas tying their hands.
MLB’s suspension of spring training includes a delay of at least two weeks on the start of the regular season, and given the rapid deterioration in recent days, the lack of widespread testing in the United States and the general uncertainty all around, that seems overly optimistic.
What’s clear is that the faster the continent enters into a collective timeout – it’s already expanding well beyond pro sports, and sure to expand in scope – the better off we’re going to be. The longer we try to maintain status quo, the wider the exposure, at least based on what’s happened elsewhere in the world.
Either way, the pain will continue for a while and the repercussions for the sports world alone will be immense and incredibly difficult to untangle.
The Toronto Blue Jays issued instructions on how fans can get refunds for suspended spring training games Thursday night, but that’s easy stuff.
Toronto Blue Jays Spring Training Refund Policy: pic.twitter.com/G0V9HPxQkG
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) March 13, 2020
Issues from scheduling the regular season and helping seasonal workers to thornier matters such as impacts to player salaries and whether fans will feel safe gathering in large numbers again are among those that loom.
Happy that @MLB is taking the right measures to protect the fans, players, and employees involved. Now the question is what happens to us? Train at our facilities till April 9? Compensation?
— Anthony Bass (@AnthonyBass52) March 12, 2020
The Blue Jays will meet Friday morning with players to work through some of those details, and the other 29 clubs are all in similar boats. Some around the game will want to stay put with their teams and keep preparing for a season trapped in The Upside Down, while others want to go home with their families.
What makes the most sense, especially with baseball wanting to restart spring training and jump into the season as quickly as possible once transmission rates flat-line, is unclear.
Again, there’s no manual for this, nor for the other complications waiting down the line, such as how to handle the restart for the minor-league season and what the draft looks like in a year where there are no college or high-school games to evaluate in the spring season. (That one is especially important for the Blue Jays, who hold the No. 5 overall pick)
Then there’s the business side, with TV networks, sponsors and other partners paying for an inventory package baseball can no longer fully supply in 2020. There’s language in the standard players contract covering national emergencies which MLB could try to use to justify a pro-rated rollback of 2020 salaries.
Perhaps that why players union head Tony Clark issued the following careful and concise statement: “Players are of course disappointed they won’t be able to compete on the field. At the same time, they recognize the importance of public health and safety.”
Given the situation we’re all in, everyone must.
The spring training lead-in to opening day is always an optimistic time of year, signifying the looming arrival of warmer weather, the hope of renewal, another opportunity. This season, whenever it starts, will carry a far more meaningful symbolism – that of a return to normalcy.