Red Sox

Red Sox

As baseball grapples with how, when, and even whether to play the 2020 season, the coronavirus pandemic has at least united management and players.

The sides reached an agreement that guarantees service time if there's no season, but also limits owners to an up-front payment of $170 million if no games are played.

Neither side wants it to come to that.

Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN on Thursday that he expects baseball to play a part in healing the country, just as it did after the Sept. 11 attacks and Boston Marathon bombings.

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The best-case scenario has the league resuming spring training in May, giving its pitchers about a month to loosen their arms, and then resuming play in June. That's a best-case scenario, though, and it's unclear how feasible it is.

Questions abound. How many games can the league fit into a truncated season? Will we see a return to weekly doubleheaders? Could seven-inning games be on the table? How deep into November will the playoffs extend? Could they be played at neutral sites? And do these strange circumstances allow baseball to experiment with changes that could become permanent?

If I were king for just one day, to steal a long-ago line from the Thompson Twins, here are nine ways I'd approach the coming season.

1. Aim for a July start

June sounds nice, but it's hard to picture in a country where patchwork responses from state to state have left some areas more susceptible to outbreaks than others.

Massachusetts schools are closed until at least May 4. New York is now the world's epicenter of infection. Florida is reluctant to order its residents inside. Californians have been sheltering in place for a week and a half. Ohio has announced that it is at war. Texas is hesitant to shutter its economy.

 

Baseball is only as safe as its weakest state, and right now, with responses all over the map and the federal government declining to take broad action, it's hard to imagine spring training restarting in a little over a month.

2. Play 100 games, including doubleheaders

Baseball wants a 140-game season that starts in June, which sounds ambitious. But if the season more reasonably opens July 1, that would typically allow for about 77-78 games, or slightly under half a season.

If you play one doubleheader a week and give every team one off day, that's seven games a week. Let the season run 15 weeks through Oct. 10, and that's 105 games.

Two doubleheaders a week could push that number to 120, though no pitching staff could throw eight times a week, so you'd have to stagger an extra couple of off days a month, dropping the total to 110 or 115.

The Red Sox typically play 25-27 games a month. If you push that to 29-30, you must give pitching staffs time to recover. Playing two doubleheaders a week with a five-man rotation and one off day would leave a starter pitching on two days rest by his third turn. That's not sustainable.

So let's not get greedy. One hundred is a nice round number, and it allows for five days of flexibility to handle the inevitable rainouts, or worse, which brings us to ...

3. Plan for a player getting infected

Epidemiologists have noted that COVID-19 spreads in clusters, with the Biogen conference in Massachusetts being the perfect example.

Baseball clubhouses are notorious incubators, unfortunately, which is why when one player misses a couple of games with illness, teammates inevitably follow.

The only way to avoid mass quarantine of entire rosters is constant testing, but as we know, tests are in short supply. Unless that problem is solved nationally, or baseball finds a way to independently acquire its own, this is the greatest impediment to games returning with regularity. If one player gets sick, does everyone else have to live in isolation for two weeks?

It's also why we should prepare to see games played in empty ballparks, which is a small price to pay while we're all locked inside anyway. At least we'll be able to watch from home.

4. Start the playoffs by the second week of October

So let's make this a 100-game season that ends early enough in October for cold-weather markets to host playoff games before the first frost.

Last season ended on Sept. 29 and the Nationals hosted the NL Wild Card game two days later. They won Game 7 of the World Series on Oct. 30. If we push everything back 11 days, then now we're looking at a World Series that runs through the second week of November.

 

Those two weeks could make a huge difference in the Northeast. Washington hosted Game 5 of last year's World Series in late October on an 80-degree day. Had it been played on Nov. 9 instead, the temperature at first pitch would've been around freezing. The difference is even more pronounced in Boston, where it was 72 degrees on Halloween and 21 not even two weeks later.

Of course, there is one way to solve this problem.

5. Embrace neutral sites

If we're playing in empty stadiums, anyway, MLB might as well send the games to areas unlikely to be affected by the elements. This is particularly true in the postseason, where the entire tournament could be held in the Cactus League in Arizona, where 10 ballparks sit within 40 minutes of each other.

Given the need to limit travel, it would make sense to conduct the entire postseason in one location that is warm and accustomed to hosting baseball. Such a plan could also allow for a longer regular season, right through Halloween if baseball so desires.

6. Do not expand the playoffs

Baseball is reportedly toying with the idea of expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams and granting first-round byes in order to recoup lost revenue.

Unless it wants to play until Thanksgiving, this seems like a bad idea. It's going to be hard enough to complete the season without adding further complications.

But more importantly, if we retrofit the expanded format onto last season, the Red Sox would've claimed the final spot, and any system that rewards that team with a playoff berth should be scrapped on principle.

7. Play more day games

Baseball was meant to be played in the sun, but the majority of the season is now played at night to maximize primetime TV revenue. That needs to end, especially if the league ends up competing against the NBA and NHL playoffs in July and August.

Every doubleheader should be preceded by a day game, and every weekend should include two day games, too.

If fans are somehow allowed in attendance, the sun would do us all some good. If they're not, it's a better experience for the players, and it increases the chances that kids can watch on TV.

8. Play seven-inning doubleheaders

This one is a big yuck for the purists, and some players will object to losing four innings of statistics a week. But we've already laid out how taxing the season will be on pitching staffs, and something's got to give.

This is not a proposal that should be considered long-term, however.

Manfred is right that nine is a sacred number. It's too fundamental to the fabric of the game, as well as its history. Find ways to speed up the nine innings we already have in the long haul, but for now, shorter doubleheaders increase the likelihood that the game's best pitchers will still be healthy when October arrives.

 

9. Elimination wish list

I'd love to trash interleague play, but the math doesn't allow it, since there are 15 teams in each league.

I'd also eliminate instant replay for all but home runs, because the cost of slowing down the game doesn't justify the benefit, especially on stolen bases, but baseball has shown no inclination to do so.

One game that can and will go, however, is the All-Star Game. The days off are too precious to use three of them on a midseason exhibition. Play it in Orlando in January as a doubleheader with the Pro Bowl.