Recovering from a pandemic lockdown is a black-swan event for all sports, but baseball is particularly vexed, for two reasons.
Buried 58 paragraphs into a well-reported story by ESPN.com’s baseball staff this week was the money quote regarding the degree of difficulty in re-starting baseball in a pandemic that acts like a stalled hurricane with dozens of on-off switches.
An executive of a risk-management firm, who chairs a Texas task force charged with safely bringing back sports and entertainment, admitted the work “fried my brain” and caused much loss of sleep.
“There are 8,000 issues,” said Alex Fairly, CEO of Fairly Group of Amarillo, TX., whose clients include MLB and NFL. “No one knows exactly what to do because this has never happened.
“It’s a true black swan moment.”
Solving for this beast is an organization with two leagues that for nearly 40 years has been unable to reach agreement on the use of the designated hitter.
Feel free to wring hands and clutch pearls over the prospects for an immensely complicated plan to rescue baseball without damaging or killing any employees or those close to them.
The “first draft” plan that has been forwarded from owners to players for a negotiation, then a vote, includes a three-week spring training in June, followed by an 82-game regular season starting July 4 at home parks — not the three-hub option previously floated — devoid of fans but full of tension.
All players, managers, coaches and umpires, plus those team staff members in close contact with essential personnel must be tested for the virus “frequently,” not daily, but will have multiple temperature screenings daily, as would members of families. No fraternizing with opponents, no leaving the team hotel or using its gym on the road.
Players also must change behaviors — no fist bumps, hugs or high fives, nor can they spit or chew tobacco or sunflower seeds. No showers after games at the stadium, but hands must be sanitized every half-inning, and keep sports-drink bottles personal. Non-playing team personnel must wear face-coverings in the dugout. Players not in the lineup must sit in the stands at a social distance. Any ball touched by several players must be discarded.
All these things are mostly inconveniences, and nothing compared to the workplace changes endured by health-care workers and first responders. The bigger issue for MLB is the potential for consuming testing kits, perhaps more than 200,000, that are needed more urgently elsewhere.
MLB believes that it has worked around the ethical problem by securing the testing services of a private lab in Salt Lake City. But the ESPN report found Dr. Val Griffeth, an Oregon emergency medicine and critical-care specialist who co-founded an organization that fills shortages of personal protective equipment for medical providers, who disagreed.
“Every resource being used by Major League Baseball will be a resource not being used by a health care service somewhere,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live in.”
If she’s right, MLB has some ‘splainin’ to do. Even if the owners and players shrug off the ethics and launch a half-season, there is a reasonable possibility that all the layering of precautions comes apart and spreads the infection among players and beyond.
“If we get the plan going and everyone does what it takes to get this to work, and then it just infects the system, it might induce a panic throughout the country,” pitcher Brent Suter, the Milwaukee Brewers player representative, told ESPN. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, they couldn’t even do it with all of these precautions.’ That’s a fear of mine, for sure.”
It’s certainly reasonable for MLB to examine all options for a re-start; obviously, owners and players are losing millions, and in the 17 states where baseball plays, tax revenues are lost and businesses supported by 81 home games wither. In Seattle, the Pyramid Ale House, opposite T-ball Park, has closed for good.
But now that all 50 states have begun to lift at least some lock-down restrictions — despite the warnings of many public health officials — there’s two complications about baseball’s re-start compared to the other sports plotting a return.
Daily-ness: Even if it’s half a season, playing every day is an order of magnitude greater than playing one, two or three times a week, especially when new routines are instantly introduced, which include waiting for test results. The complexity of staging each day’s game, from the breakfast waiter to final-beer bartender in the hotel bar, is fraught with threats. Screw-ups are inevitable.
Compensation: Independent of a game-operations plan that must be approved by the players union, owners are trying to get players to accept a 50/50 split of the game’s revenues, instead of an agreed-upon, pro-rated share of salaries owed in 2020. The players see that as an opening to a salary cap. Baseball is the only major sport without one, and players aim to keep it that way.
But there is speculation that if players’ demands for money end up being the prime reason the half-season gets scuttled, they will be roasted across the fruited plain by Americans sliding into an economic depression. Former Braves All-Star Tom Glavine, and a former union rep, said this week, “Even if players were 100 percent justified in what they were complaining about, they’re still going to look bad.”
That’s probably true. But does it serve well the short- or long-term interests of the owners to put their best product, the players, in front of a public-relations torpedo? Attempting to win a side battle amid a war with a biological scourge is the deed of scoundrels, mountebanks and craven opportunists.
Far be it from me to suggest that owners have such an agenda. But since we’re plotting scenarios here, all cards should be face-up.
Among all sports, baseball is uniquely hard-pressed to navigate this unprecedented peril, with college football a close second with its need have students on campuses. I don’t envy MLB a decision that is frying brains. But in my vast experience with black swans, I tend to go with the non-fatal option regarding a non-essential business.
As far as players, they are mostly young, tough guys who think the ‘rona won’t kill them. They’re probably right. But it can can do some serious damage to a chunk of a life. Below is a before-and-after image of San Francisco nurse Mike Schultz, 43, who went from a fit 190 pounds to 140 after six weeks in the hospital, 4½ weeks on a ventilator.
He told Buzzfeed that it was all he could do stand up and hold the phone for the photo. But he’s not dead.
So, MLB, what are you prepared to risk?