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What it means to say ‘there will be a season this year’

Rob Manfred

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

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Yesterday ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that the baseball establishment -- team executives, owners, players, politicians, and “TV power brokers” -- has grown increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year. This morning Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that “those involved at the sport’s highest levels are increasingly confident games will be played in 2020.”

But what does that even mean?

I ask that because both of those reports say, right up front (and in the middle, and at the end), that baseball has no idea how it will play the season. None at all. Zero set plans. Zero tangible framework for a plan, even.

Passan makes it clear that “this optimism is guarded and cautious and laden with caveats” and that "[t]here are a million questions.” He attempts to answer many of them in Q&A format. His first exchange with himself makes it clear that the people he’s talking to have no idea what’s going to happen:

OK then. What’s the latest?

Lots. And nothing. It’s a contradictory existence in which the baseball world is doing everything it can to prepare for games without any firm plan in place for when or where those games will be played.

As you go on through the questions more questions arise and nothing approaching firm answers are given. Which is not Passan’s fault to be sure, because there are no answers to his very relevant questions at the moment.

The same goes for the Rosenthal report.

He says baseball officials find themselves on an “ever-shifting landscape of the pandemic” and says they “have yet to determine how, when and where that would happen.” Like Passan’s report, Rosenthal’s report notes that "[s]o much is fluid, so much unknown . . . and that "[t]he longer the sport waits, the greater the number of options that might arise.”

Where does that leave us? As my man Leo from “Miller’s Crossing” once said, it’s clear. As mud. So what, exactly, is the purpose of these reports?

I think Rosenthal at least nods to what’s going on in his column when he says, “The optimism for baseball’s return stems, in part, from the number of states that are considering lifting stay-at-home restrictions. Such decisions, motivated in some cases by political considerations likely would influence baseball and its clubs . . .”

Those re-openings are anything but a uniform undertaking and, yes, many of them are far more politically-motivated than others.

Ohio, for example, which has gotten high marks by public health experts for its response to the pandemic, announced a stepped reopening plan yesterday that begins with medical services on Friday, offices and manufacturing next week, and consumer retail on May 12. Nowhere on the schedule yet are restaurants, bars, gyms, salons, or sporting events of any kind, even without fans. Ohio’s plan seems to be driven by science, data, and testing and contact tracing availability, which the governor acknowledged yesterday is still lacking, necessitating this graduated approach.

In contrast, Texas yesterday announced an aggressive and expansive reopening plan with retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls being allowed to reopen with limited capacity this Friday. Florida is expected to follow suit soon. Arizona’s current lockdown orders expire in two days. While Arizona’s path forward is still unclear, the Texas plan has been criticized by many as too aggressive and, as Rosenthal notes, have been said to be motivated in no small part driven by political considerations and will, inevitably, put people in a tough spot.

While neutral site baseball makes natural sense in Arizona and Florida, Texas is a relatively new addition to the amorphous reopening plans Major League Baseball has floated. It doesn’t take a cynical mind to think that its inclusion in its plans is based on it being a state that is likely to open for business first. Is this what will, to use Rosenthal’s words, “influence baseball and its clubs?” Will baseball, like some states, join in a race to the bottom and seek to open up as soon as it can in states that open up as soon as they can?

More to the point, if it does, will club employees and others who will be essential to the operation of baseball face the same choices that a lot of regular workers in these states are about to face? The whole, “you must go to work, even if you don’t feel 100% safe, because we have decided that we are going back to work” thing? Those are questions that will become more relevant as baseball’s plans to resume come into anything approaching focus. Especially if states’ varied reopening schedules are, indeed, what “influence baseball and its clubs.”

In the meantime, though, as we have what appears to be a complete lack of focus regarding anything that even begins to look like a plan, I’m wondering about these reports from Passan and Rosenthal -- reports which were construed as “there WILL be baseball in 2020" -- and have a hard time interpreting them as anything other than Major League Baseball wanting people to think that there will be baseball in 2020. An exercise geared more toward the creation of expectations and a sense of inevitability as opposed to the dissemination of actual news. An exercise that, once those expectations and sense of inevitability gains purchase in the minds of baseball fans, will make it far harder for anyone to dissent or criticize the plans. Plans which, however recently they will have been decided on, will be cast as “long-in-process,” with gestures back to these April reports.

At the moment, though, I’m not seeing anything different today than I saw yesterday. I see a sport everyone desperately wants to return but which has no clear path to return yet, even if some headlines and ledes suggest otherwise.

Follow @craigcalcaterra