Could all 30 major league baseball teams move to Arizona as soon as next month, permitting games to be staged in the absence of fans while minimizing outside contact amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
The idea is audacious and raises numerous questions that may prove impossible to answer satisfactorily at a time when public life has come to a screeching halt in the middle of a health crisis. Nonetheless, the fact that the concept has been spitballed in major league circles — and was outlined on Monday night by the Associated Press and ESPN.com — gives some insight into how sports leagues and MLB in particular are trying to find ways to salvage a 2020 season.
The Arizona idea would bring all 30 teams to the Phoenix area, where the presence of numerous spring training facilities within short drives allows the possibility of staging games with no fans in the stands. The absence of fans and the driving-distance proximity of ballparks — thus erasing the need for air travel — could limit potential exposure of players and others involved in staging games to those infected with the coronavirus.
But while the possibility was brought up in a conversation on Monday between MLB and Players Association leaders, the exchange represented the start of a dialogue rather than its conclusion. The idea is not full-fledged enough for the MLBPA to have formally vetted it with its members.
There are logistical questions, including whether it’s possible to have teams playing in outdoor spring training facilities in a desert, where game-time temperatures routinely would be above 100 degrees —making it difficult to schedule and thus broadcast games in prime time on the East Coast. Meanwhile, there are plenty of questions related to the health and safety not just of players but also hotel workers, umpires, trainers, clubhouse attendants, cooks, and stadium operations personnel.
Moreover, the league and the players continue to be guided by government orders — including the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s on mass gatherings, as well as federal, state, and local orders relating to assemblies.
ESPN’s report suggested that the Arizona plan might make a resumption of games possible as soon as next month. To this point, however, major league sources consider it premature to speculate on specific dates given the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic. The possibility remains that the season could be canceled.
On Tuesday, MLB underscored that it will defer to government regulations in planning games.
“MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so,” a league statement said.
MLB and its players have expressed a shared interest in playing as many games as possible this season, a goal that inevitably will result in atypical measures. MLB and the MLBPA already had established last month that neutral sites, games played in the absence of fans, doubleheaders, adjustments to game formats, and an extended season were all up for discussion.
Red Sox lefthander Chris Sale, one week removed from Tommy John surgery, recalled his participation in 2015 in a White Sox-Orioles game in which there were no fans in Camden Yards because of riots in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody.
“Sometimes you’ve got to adapt. Sometimes you’ve got to do some things for the greater good of what’s going on around you,” Sale said. “Is it ideal? I would say no … If that’s what it takes, we’ve got to do it.”
Sale expressed greater uncertainty about whether players would be willing to isolate themselves in Arizona hotels and stay away from their families in order to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“I don't know if I could look at my kids just through a screen for four or five months,” said Sale. “I think there's a lot of figuring out to do. I think there's a right way to do this, and I'm confident that Major League Baseball, the Players Association, all the owners, all the teams and players, I think that we're going to be able to find a way to come together and iron this stuff out, and figure out a way that's safe and is going to please the masses. Whatever that is, I don't know. I'm glad I'm not the one that has to figure all that out.”
No one has definitive answers, only the start of them, and any possibility of sports seasons will require unusual forms of innovation. That notion is being underscored in Taiwan, where the professional baseball league is scheduled to start games on Saturday. According to the website CPBLstats.com, in the absence of people attending the game, the Rakuten Monkeys will have 500 robot “fans” in attendance — a reminder that if there is to be a 2020 MLB season, it will look unlike anything that has preceded it.