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Major League Baseball on the Horizon?

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, ESPN’s Jeff Passan gave baseball fans everywhere a slight glimmer of hope. With the “support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic”, MLB is now shifting its focus to a much more realistic and concrete timeline, which seemed unimaginable just weeks ago.

The plan would see all 30 Major League teams descend on the greater Phoenix area, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, with a number of surrounding spring training facilities primed as ideal locations to house teams starting in May. However, the main area of importance and concern is health and safety. Numerous sports leagues around the globe are grappled with this, and MLB seems to have found a viable answer. Players, coaching staff, and other essential personnel would live in relative isolation, confined to hotel rooms with movement restricted solely to and from the surrounding baseball facilities. It’s ultimately that model of “strict isolation” that has garnered support and praise from officials at the CDC and members of the National Institute of Health, fast-tracking the return of baseball.

Conceptually, the plan seems foolproof; however, as many have bore witness to in recent weeks, nothing is business as usual. One key concern would be the availability of testing. While MLB reiterated in a statement that the “health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount”, the logistics of such a huge undertaking are far from simple. With a shortage of tests nationwide, one would have to wonder how the league could ensure that players would not only be kept safe, but monitored accurately.

Health concerns also begs the question as to whether players and coaching staff would be willing to take the risk. The comforts of family, friends and familiar surroundings would be gone with players and personnel sequestered. Although there has been a mutual understanding and genuine will from players and league officials to kick start the season as soon as possible, personal conflictions are an unprecedented factor.

Ultimately, that will be the theme of the 2020 season: unprecedented, unchartered waters. Both players and league officials will no doubt be combing through and dramatically revising how they go about their business on the field. Dramatic changes to on-field protocols seem like the only realistic option to maintain the “social distancing” ethos this plan has brought to life. A number of changes have been discussed, including:

  • The introduction of an electronic strike zone;
  • No mound visits;
  • Seven inning double headers;
  • Players sitting in the stands, 6 feet apart, abiding by CDC guidelines.

When you take a step back and look at this from a business and viewership perspective, MLB is taking a bad situation and using it to their advantage. With almost all conceivable sports leagues around the globe shuttered due to the spread of COVID-19, the league has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to draw the eyes of longing sports fans from around the world to Major League Baseball. With a steady decline in attendance and viewership in recent years, MLB, notoriously lauded for its poor marketing efforts, has a chance to capture the minds and imaginations of domestic viewers and expose the rest of the world to America’s national pastime.

In the coming days, more reports and statements will shed light on what MLB is and isn’t seriously considering. For the time being, the league has been quick to state that they “have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan”. Albeit a tantalizing prospect that baseball could return in early May, only time will tell whether all the pieces will come together to kick start what will unequivocally be a remarkable season.