It doesn’t sound like baseball will be returning anytime soon.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the sports world, and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending there be no gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, it’s starting to seem like the first two months of the baseball season could be lost.
To this point, the league has announced nothing more than a delay of “at least” two weeks, but any regular-season baseball before June is starting to sound like a pretty good scenario.
It’s certainly possible that we could be looking at the shortest baseball season since the World Series became a legitimate, non-exhibition thing back in 1903. That distinction is currently held by the 1981 season, when only 107 games were played due to a players' strike.
If that’s the case, then the 2020 season is going to need some drastic reconfiguring.
Here are five of what will likely end up being dozens of things that will need to happen to the 2020 baseball schedule once the season finally starts.
There will need to be a second round of spring training
Spring training was suspended last week, but it is not over.
You might be thinking, “If the regular season is going to start in May or June, losing two months’ worth of games, why would they waste time playing exhibition games when the time to fit in as many regular-season games as possible is so limited?”
Good thought. But spring training isn’t about playing a bunch of games that don’t mean anything. It’s about getting players in shape for a six-month grind of a season, seven months for the teams that go deep into the postseason. Players work their way up to that condition over the month and a half that is spring training. A lot of them start earlier than report day, too, working out over the winter.
Now, in the middle of that ramp-up period, things have been shut down. Players and teams are trying to figure out how players will be able to work out and keep themselves in shape during this stoppage. But the players, specifically pitchers, will likely not be in game shape when baseball is allowed to resume.
That means another spring training of indeterminate length. It’s entirely dependent on how long the delay ends up being, of course. But Cubs president Theo Epstein said last week that players might require another ramp-up period as long as three or four weeks. That’s almost an entire additional month added to the delay of the start of the season.
So say the CDC’s eight-week recommendation is all that’s necessary. That’s May 8. Then add three or four weeks to that. That’s why the speculation right now is centered around the end of May or early June.
If you like exhibition games, you’re in luck. If you don’t, you will need to sit through weeks’ worth of them.
The schedule will need to be entirely redone
It’s one thing to delay the start of the season two weeks, push a couple weeks’ worth of regular-season games into October and have the postseason bleed into the second week of November.
It’s an entirely different thing to try to figure out what to do with two additional months’ worth of games.
Playing the World Series at Christmastime seems unlikely, so we’re talking about a shortened season.
How short are we talking here? While it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty considering the unknown future of not just the pandemic but how baseball will react to it, a piece by Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards included plenty of helpful information for trying to figure this out.
If baseball decided to add almost the entire month of October to the regular season, it’d look like this:
But even in the best-case scenario at the top of that chart, there’s a loss of 36 games. And the loss gets larger and larger the deeper into the summer the delay lasts.
And it won’t be as easy as simply opening the existing schedule to eventual start date and saying, “Go from here.” Teams will have an unequal number of home and road games. Teams will have an unequal number of games against division opponents. Teams will have an unequal distribution of opponents, potentially giving certain teams wildly more difficult schedules than their competitors for division titles and playoff spots.
In the name of competitive fairness, the entire schedule would need to be redone. There would need to be an assurance that teams competing for the same rewards would have an equal chance of earning those rewards, at least from a scheduling perspective.
We can pore over specifics until our eyes pop out of our heads. But here’s a couple of easy ones: The White Sox currently have nine of their 19 games against the Kansas City Royals, one of baseball’s worst teams, scheduled for the first month of the season. Similarly, they have games against the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers scheduled for September, while the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians are set to play those same Dodgers in the season’s first two months. There’s a definite imbalance there.
So the whole thing will need to be changed. Completely.
The All-Star Game will need to go away
Remember when you were thinking about why there would be exhibition games played in the precious remaining time to squeeze in as many regular-season games as possible?
Spring training might not be going anywhere, but the one-week hole in the middle of the schedule needs to go. That means no All-Star Game. Baseball’s midsummer showcase will need to be sacrificed for an extra week’s worth of games.
Now is that even possible? I don’t know. There are probably TV contracts and an awful lot of advertising revenue and the collective bargaining agreement and a ton of other legally binding documents that might allow that show to go on.
But if baseball’s biggest concern is cramming in as many regular-season games as possible before snow covers half the stadiums in the game, this would be a good way to buy another week.
There will need to be October baseball in your home park, so bundle up
Speaking of lousy weather, this is the year you finally buy that expensive ballpark sweatshirt or jacket.
Now, fans in Chicago are well versed in what it’s like to watch baseball in non-baseball-friendly conditions. It’s called April. And most of May.
Well, if there’s going to be regular-season baseball being played in October, there will be a return to that kind of thing.
Chicago’s first big snowstorm this winter? Halloween. So get ready for potential weather-related postponements across the country as teams are trying to clinch division titles and wild card berths. It could make for an even more chaotic close to the regular season.
The World Series will need to be played at a neutral site
With baseball potentially staring at the Fall Classic being played around Thanksgiving, a neutral-site World Series makes all the sense in the world.
And it’s basically screaming to be played in Miami. The Marlins have an indoor stadium to protect from the oppressive Florida humidity. Now baseball can use it to shelter the New York Yankees or the Washington Nationals or, should things go really well, the Cubs or White Sox from the winter-esque weather of their hometowns.
The Marlins don’t figure to be using it. Plus, Thanksgiving dinner at A-Rod’s house!
Baseball could even use these extraordinary circumstances to make a Super Bowl style event out of the World Series, sending fans to a destination, warm-weather city for a Florida vacation. And while the World Series is potentially seven games long, without the need to travel, there don’t need to be any days off, or at least minimal off days. The whole thing could be scheduled for seven to nine days.
And while this is probably an easy-to-sell fix for these rarest of circumstances, why not use it as a test case for this maybe being more than a one-time thing?
This whole neutral-site thing works wonderfully for the NFL, a sport that actually can be played in the cold rain and snow. But every February, they put on a gargantuan party in a destination city with an indoor stadium -- like Minneapolis, mercy -- and folks flock to it.
Would the luster of home crowds be a tough thing to lose? Absolutely. And there are plenty of fans who are strict followers of the church of “baseball was meant to be played outdoors.”
But like the Super Bowl, this could turn into a rotation of sorts and have ripple effects on future expansion. Houston and Dallas have indoor stadiums. Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego could be host cities without having to deal with bad weather.
Maybe in addition to dreaming of Montreal and Portland as expansion candidates, Nashville gets increased consideration (and an indoor stadium, to boot), New Orleans gets added to the list or there’s a larger effort to keep the Rays in Florida, with a new stadium incentivized as a future host of the World Series.
Who knows? The pandemic is going to cause all sorts of changes to the 2020 season, and it might have far-reaching effects on future seasons, as well.