The return of baseball has come in swinging and within just the first couple of weeks has already had its first strike. After a four month delay, a grueling labor dispute between the owners and Players Association and a few setbacks due to testing conflicts early on, the season was off to an odd, but relatively smooth start.
But now the question on America’s mind is will this incredibly unusual, complex, and debatable season last? We’re only entering the second week of the 2020 campaign and many fans are already storming Twitter demanding the MLB cancel or pause the season.
Empty stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts of attendees and virtual reality crowds of fans have folks at home raising their eyebrows and feeling a little... unsettled. If the shortened season, controversial rule changes and ethical conflict of resuming baseball amidst an unrelenting pandemic was not indicative of just how strange this upcoming season will be, the creepy automated figures and their delayed reactions in the background should make it perfectly clear.
On just day 4 of this unconventional sprint, the first – and probably not the last – COVID-19 outbreak caused the postponing of several games. After what is now up to 16 players and 2 staff members for the Miami Marlins tested positive for the novel Coronavirus, the MLB issued a statement postponing the Marlin’s season until at least Monday. Having played the Marlins in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Phillies have also been shut down. Their games have been postponed until at least Friday.
MLB Issues a Postponement on Tuesday, July 28“Given the current circumstances, MLB believes that it is most prudent to allow the Marlins time to focus on providing care for their players and planning their OPs for resumption early next week,” MLB announced on Tuesday morning, “The response outlined in the joint MLB-MLBPA Operations Manual was triggered immediately upon learning of the cluster of positive cases, including contact tracing and the quarantining and testing of all of the identified close contacts. The Marlins' personnel who tested positive remain in isolation and are receiving care.”
The news of the outbreak spread quickly early in the week and conjured up some backlash towards the Miami team. MLB personnel, players and fans are criticizing the team and their decision to play Sunday’s game in Philadelphia after at least 4 players had already tested positive.
Before the league finalized the decision to pump the breaks on the Marlin’s games, they were given a taste of the budding friction this news had caused when the Washington Nationals turned up their noses at the idea of traveling to Miami this coming weekend to play the Marlins. A unanimous team vote held on Tuesday made it clear that the Nats did not feel safe visiting the Marlins’ home stadium. Although a team vote holds no weight when it comes to deciding on the matter, such an objection is another first of the 2020 season and possibly another indication that it should be canceled or postponed.
What are the experts saying?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s director of infectious disease research and the country’s safety compass throughout this pandemic, shared his thoughts about the sport’s current status on Good Morning America Tuesday morning. “This could put it in danger,” Fauci, who last week commemorated the start of the season by throwing the ceremonial first pitch, explained. "I don’t believe they need to stop, but we just need to follow this and see what happens with other teams on a day-by-day basis.”
His comments, however, were made before test results were released that would bring the total number of the Marlin’s positive cases from 11 to 18. With 16 of those cases being players, that means nearly half of their team is out for the count and the MLB has had to make some quick revisions to the schedule so as to not disrupt the season.
For now, the MLB has proposed a plan to make up all postponed games later in the season through doubleheaders and by eliminating off-days – if circumstances permit. According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the league is “prepared to allow teams to finish the season with an unequal number of games played and determine the postseason field with winning percentage.”
All Marlin team members and personnel have been quarantined and are receiving treatment. The whole group will remain in Philadelphia until further notice. Additional testing is being enforced for every person who has been in contact with the team, including the Phillies.
“I don’t see it as a nightmare.” -MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred
In concurrence with Fauci’s optimistic point of view, Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, stated that he believes the unfortunate outbreak among the Marlins is not a “nightmare” situation.
"I don't put this in the nightmare category. We don't want any player to get exposed. It's not a positive thing, but I don't see it as a nightmare,” Manfred shared on the MLB network on Monday. "A team losing a number of players that rendered it completely non-competitive would be an issue that we would have to address and have to think about making a change -- whether that was shutting down the part of a season, the whole season, that depends on the circumstances."
Manfred went on to say, "The same thing with respect to league-wide. You get to a certain point league-wide where it does become a health threat and we certainly would shut down at that point."
Tensions Rising…A major virus outbreak is not the only hiccup this season has in store. Following the shutdown of the Marlins/Phillies season, the MLB has suspended Joe Kelly, Dodgers relief pitcher, for eight games and manager Dave Roberts for one game after a tense face-off against the Houston Astros Tuesday night.
Some animosity was certainly expected with this being the first encounter since the 2017 sign stealing scandal that made headlines during this past offseason. As the clubs took to the field Tuesday evening, the bad blood between them was unmistakable.
In the sixth inning, Kelly instigated a ‘bench-clearing dust-up’ when he fired a curveball over the head of Carlos Correa and left the mound shouting a few less-than-polite words at Correa and the other batters. His actions have led to the following statement made by MLB Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, Chris Young.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly has received an eight-game suspension for his actions in the bottom of the sixth inning of Tuesday night's game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Kelly, who has previously been suspended in his career for intentional throwing, threw a pitch in the area of the head of Alex Bregman and later taunted Carlos Correa, which led to the benches clearing.
In addition, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has received a one-game suspension as a result of Kelly's actions.
Kelly's suspension had been scheduled to begin tonight, when the Dodgers will continue their series in Houston. However, Kelly has elected to appeal. Thus, the discipline will be held in abeyance until the process is complete. Roberts will serve his suspension tonight.
Astros manager Dusty Baker also received a fine as a part of the incident between the two Clubs.
Virus outbreaks, pseudo fans, tensions rising... The peculiarity of the 2020 MLB season continues to rear its ugly head and has fans wondering if the risk of it all is really worth it.
What is the plan moving forward?As medical professionals come forward with their own opinions on whether or not the season should continue, it seems the 2020 season could be in jeopardy. The problem, however, is clearly not with the game itself, which is a socially distant sport by nature.
“The way baseball is right now,” Dr. Marc Siegel explained on Fox News, “Everyone’s playing in their home park. They’re on the team buses, they’re traveling together, they’re eating at restaurants. They’re sharing equipment. Equipment bags are being brought on buses.”
The problem lies in the fact that teams are not being diligent enough about the health and safety protocols that have been enforced. The league could benefit from reevaluating their original plan for the season and taking a more travel-limited, contained approach, similar to the format being implemented by the NBA, WNBA, NHS, MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League. These other major leagues have committed to sequestering their players and personnel in an isolated “bubble”, using a single location for all games.
While the activities and conduct of MLB players’ and personnel can be strictly regulated when on the field, it’s what happens off site that is concerning. There is certainly a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone to act responsibly 24/7.
In better news...The National’s star outfielder Juan Soto has been cleared by the MLB to return from isolation after five negative COVID tests. However, he is still awaiting final approval from the Washington D.C. Department of Health.
Just before Opening Day against the New York Yankees, Soto tested positive for the virus and has had to sit out every game since. His teammates and loyal fans are anxious for him to make a full recovery and get back out on the field. According to the Nats manager, Dave Martinez, they are hopeful for government clearance by the weekend, as that would allow Soto to start on Tuesday when they face the New York Mets.
More promising news presented itself for the Atlanta Braves as well. Nick Markakis has had a change of heart about his initial decision to opt out of the 2020 season. The Braves are delighted to have Markakis back to offer some much needed outfield relief after dropping a deal with Yasiel Puig, who tested positive for COVID earlier this month.
"Sometimes in life you make rash decisions without thinking things through. At the time, I thought it was the right decision," Markakis told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. "Sitting at home watching these guys compete the last couple days and all the risks that they're taking going out there, you know, I just in a way, deep down, that pit in my stomach, I felt like I needed to be out there."
One thing is for certain: both Soto and Markakis can expect to return to the strangest baseball season that teams and fans have ever experienced in both the way it looks and the way it’s played. The pandemic has provoked the implementation of some new rules. Teams will use a universal designated hitter for the first time ever in National League parks and extra innings will begin with a runner on second base to avoid marathons.
Because of the elimination of marathon games, there is a little controversy surrounding the potential of ending up with some faulty standings for the finals. This is due to the fact that each individual game of this year’s campaign will amount to around 2.7 games in a regular season. That means the eight-game winning streak we know could be achieved in an easy three-game sweep – which also means we might see some unexpected teams in the position to compete for postseason.
And it goes without saying that such an odd baseball season is going to produce odd baseball statistics. Considering players have had only three weeks of intensive training after a four-month layoff, the quality of the action will most likely fall short of the typical major league standards. No player is anywhere near midseason form. Defense is proving to be a tad clumsy. And pitchers have not built up their arm strength to full season levels.
Thinking back on the 2019 season, each team had played 55 to 60 games by the end of May. At that time, only two players had reached the 20-homer threshold, only one player had reached 20 stolen bases, and we were still in store for 10 different closers to blow a save. Now imagine if the season ended there with those benchmarks in place, and it becomes abundantly clear how distorted the stats will be at the conclusion of this season.