Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: See ya in 2021, baseball

Everyone misses baseball.

In the past week alone, a handful of major leaguers live-streamed an “MLB The Show” tournament, the Boston Red Sox shared Zoom backgrounds for fans to use and I spent my Saturday watching a full-length World Series game from 2013. (Spoiler alert: the Sox won.)

Most consequently, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to a package on Friday that outlined the league’s policies and contingencies going forward. The deal addressed everything: player salaries, the draft, scheduling, scouting, arbitration and more. 

I cannot do the deal justice, even by sifting through each and every detail. For more information, I recommend this thorough breakdown from ESPN. Ultimately, at the center of the plan is this goal: as much baseball as possible.

Sadly, I believe it is now more likely that there will be no baseball in 2020.

There are two key components of the agreement that bring me to this grim conclusion: scheduling and service time accommodations.

First, the two sides agreed that the season will not begin until three conditions are met: 1) All bans are lifted on mass public gatherings, though the league would consider holding games in neutral, empty stadiums. 2) All travel restrictions in the United States and Canada are lifted. 3) Medical experts deem that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans.

I am certainly not a medical expert. But as someone who consumes news at an excessive rate, I have a hard time believing that any of those criteria will be met anytime soon, especially those regarding gatherings and travel. 

Even if all three thresholds are reached, the league would have to institute some sort of Spring Training Part Two, giving players time to ramp back up into game mode to avoid injuries. That preparation period would likely have to last two weeks at a minimum. Then the postseason would have to begin sometime around early November at the latest.

There is no question that a shortened season full of doubleheaders is better than no season. But at what point is it simply too late?

Second, the MLB and MLBPA agreed on critical contractual and financial pieces, including service time. All players will receive a year of service time, regardless of the ultimate length of the season or in the case of full cancellation.

This was the make-or-break element for players. Counting 2020 toward service time means that free agency, arbitration and pensions will not be impacted. According to ESPN, once the league granted this request, the rest of the agreement fell into place.

Many were quick to point out that this rule could lead to Mookie Betts entering free agency without playing a single game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. What a tragedy that would be.

Kudos to the league and the Players Association for promptly coming together and agreeing on a comprehensive plan. Necessary conversations took place regarding the legal and economic sides of the sport, and now we can all go back to focusing on more pressing issues like public safety and helping others. 

The agreement is all well and good. But I cannot shake the feeling that with the stroke of their pens, the two parties sounded the death knell for the 2020 season. And this is not to fault either side –– the conditions they laid out were sensible and responsible. 

But even if Commissioner Rob Manfred elected to go down the route of empty or neutral stadiums, can he truly be sure that nobody would be in harm’s way? Even without fans, each team still employs an army of players, trainers, front office employees, security, coaches, ballpark staff and so on. And what about the media? No way they’d be allowed back in clubhouses.

The only way to truly ensure the safety of everyone involved is to wait until the pandemic seriously subsides. Unfortunately, the calendar does not work in MLB’s favor. Opening Day was supposed to be last Thursday.

As we continue to wait and hope, I am reminded of a famous quotation from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Troubling context of Rumsfeld’s words aside, his muddled sentiment is very apt right now. We simply do not know much, and we do not know when we will know more. 

I hope I am wrong. I sincerely wish to watch live baseball again one day soon. But with the current trajectory of the coronavirus, I am not holding my breath that we will see any MLB action this season. 

Time to cue up more old playoff highlights.

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