Roughly a month from a now, nearly four months after what would have been opening day if not for the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball plans to start the 2020 season with teams in their home stadiums. But if we’ve learned anything during that sportsless stretch it’s that the virus, especially if not taken seriously enough, can dash even the most meticulously laid plans.
There will be precautions and protocols — the specifics of which were resolved with the Major League Baseball Players Union Tuesday night to finalize baseball’s plan to return. Players will be tested regularly and social distancing measures will be imposed on dugouts and clubhouses. Travel will be limited by region. Even still, the spread of COVID-19 cases in one city or another could prove to be prohibitive. And so while teams are intending to play in their home ballparks, with opening day on July 23 or July 24, they’re also preparing to change those plans.
A source familiar with the league's thinking acknowledged it's possible that COVID spikes could force teams to relocate away from their home stadiums, with spring training facilities, minor-league parks, or other MLB stadiums standing in as potential options.
Home stadiums emerged as the preferred path forward in conversations between the league and the players association, supplanting early rumors of a single quarantine “bubble” or “hub” system of multiple bubbles. Reports of an Arizona Plan or Arizona and Florida Plan were met with ethical concerns around imposing that level of restriction on players and separating them from their families — Mike Trout himself raised red flags about the concept.
The NBA and other leagues, however, are sequestering all their teams in self-contained bubbles that are forcing some players to opt out of the remaining games entirely rather than subject themselves to prolonged quarantines.
Now baseball’s plan to play in 27 different cities, even if the travel is limited by geographic division, is looking increasingly perilous in a country that seems incapable of taking the necessary steps to sufficiently stem the spread of the coronavirus.
California, Texas, Florida and Arizona — together home to one third of the league — all recorded record-high days for new cases in the past week, according to The New York Times. Even a shortened 60-game season is long enough for hot spots to shift and risk levels along with them. Baseball’s best hope at this point is a robust array of contingency plans — that includes what will happen when, not if, a player tests positive during the regular season — and relocating individual clubs if the circumstances call for it makes sense as part of that preparedness.
But the level of logistical agility required to potentially prepare another stadium to adhere to the coronavirus protocols and relocate an entire team and all of their opponents — in the midst of a 60-game season played in 66 days (at most) — underscores how complicated it will be to safely play baseball this summer.
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