Major League Baseball was teetering on the brink of collapse when the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins had outbreaks of COVID-19 in early August and were shut down from playing.
Another outbreak would have forced commissioner Rob Manfred to consider shutting down the season.
“We got to the point where we had some pretty nervous days,” Manfred told the Globe. “But we had confidence in the protocols that the experts helped us build. We stuck with those protocols and we were able to get through it.”
Now baseball is close to completing the World Series and crowning a champion. The 2020 season, for all its peculiarities, will be remembered as a success.
MLB’s plan, which included putting teams in a bubble for the final three rounds of the postseason, has worked. Baseball deserves as much credit as the NBA for finding a way to get it done, maybe more considering the scope of the endeavor.
“It’s a big achievement for everyone involved,” Manfred said. “The players, the club personnel, the umpires, our office. This was no small feat and a lot of people worked hard and sacrificed to make it work.”
The season also was marked by two days of protests in late August when 10 games were postponed by a player boycott in protest of systemic racism and police brutality.
The sentiment wasn’t universal as 10 teams voted to keep playing. But it was still a significant moment for a sport with dwindling numbers of Black players and a culture that discourages speaking out on political issues.
“The focus on social justice issues [and] the need for diversity will inevitably move us forward over time,” Manfred said. “The emergence of The Players Alliance [a group of 100-plus current and former Black major leaguers] and working with them would be a huge asset for us. I do think it’s going to make a difference over the long term.”
Now comes what will be an unprecedented offseason for the sport as the economic repercussions of playing a 60-game season without fans come further into play.
Manfred said the 30 teams combined for $3 billion in operating losses and don’t know to what extent they’ll be able to welcome fans back into ballparks next season.
How comfortable fans will be returning to the park isn’t clear, either. That will likely depend on how quickly a vaccine is made available to the general public. That or rapid testing before entering the park.
MLB made approximately 11,500 tickets available for each game of the National League Championship Series and World Series. The first eight of those games did not sell out.
Most teams, the Red Sox among them, have laid off dozens of employees and reduced salaries. To what degree teams will spend to supplement their rosters — if at all — isn’t certain.
“I think planning and budgeting for next year is going to be the most difficult, really in the modern history of the game,” Manfred said. "The clubs had really significant losses this year. Couple that with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next year and it makes for a really tough process.
“We are working on 2021 already, trying to give the clubs the best advice as to what we see out there. The difficulty is this virus has proved to be really unpredictable. It’s the virus that’s going to dictate what happens.”
The impact of this season will be far-reaching. Manfred does not envision another 16-team postseason but is an advocate of expansion from 10.
Other rules changes — putting a runner on second base to start extra innings, the universal DH, and seven-inning doubleheaders — were safety measures because of the pandemic and shortened spring training.
Using some or all of those rules next season will be subject to negotiation with the Players Association. The extra-innings rule and universal DH are alterations that could be made permanent or modified.
With the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expiring Dec. 1, 2021, those negotiations will be an ongoing story next season.
That the sides worked together to get through the pandemic isn’t necessarily a harbinger for continued labor peace. But it’s a start and surely both parties understand that a work stoppage so quickly following the events of this season would be poisonous to the long-term viability of the industry.
“Look, I have tremendous respect and admiration for the players,” Manfred said. "You have to realize, we asked them to completely change the way they played the game, the way they did their job.
“There were all sorts of restrictions on arrival times [at the park] and how they could interact with each other. But it really went beyond that. We actually changed their private lives, as well. I think our athletes sacrificed a tremendous amount and still managed to put on an amazing 2020 season in terms of the quality of play.”
Red Sox should consider McEwing
Pirates bench coach Don Kelly, Diamondbacks bench coach Luis Urueta, and Cubs third base coach Will Venable fit the template you’d expect for the next Red Sox manager. They’re young former players with coaching experience who have an appreciation for analytics.
All have interviewed as the search gains traction.
Dodgers coach George Lombard and Phillies staffer Sam Fuld have the same qualities, although Fuld hasn’t yet been an on-field coach. They’re also likely on Chaim Bloom’s list.
Alex Cora, of course, had that background when he was hired and that would make him a good fit again. His World Series ring doesn’t hurt, either.
If the White Sox are bent on bringing Tony La Russa back as manager, the Red Sox also should take a long look at 48-year-old Joe McEwing. He has been on the White Sox staff since 2012 and spent the last four seasons as bench coach under Rick Renteria.
He also has three seasons of minor league managing experience.
McEwing, who is from New Jersey and played five seasons with the Mets, would understand the sensibilities and media climate in Boston, too.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Alex Verdugo was not a Gold Glove finalist despite impressive defensive metrics. He finished the season with seven defensive runs saved, tied for sixth among major league outfielders.
Here was the problem: Verdugo started 30 games in left field, 18 in right field, and one in center field. Had he played full time in right field, Verdugo could have edged out one of the finalists.
The Fielding Bible listed Verdugo as a contender for its multi-position award.
The metrics didn’t favor Jackie Bradley Jr., who was not a finalist in center field and expressed his dismay on social media.
That Bradley has only one Gold Glove is nonsensical.
▪ A decision on the $6.25 million team option on Martin Perez will be due four days after the World Series. Perez pitched well enough to merit a return and in most offseasons that would be an easy decision.
But the Sox could look to negotiate the deal down and see how willing Perez is to brave the market. A pitcher with a 5.30 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last three seasons isn’t getting $6.25 million this winter.
▪ The Red Sox have signed 21-year-old outfielder Kevin Garcia for a modest $25,000 bonus. He’s 6 feet 5 inches, 210 pounds, and left Cuba in 2017. Garcia is the first Cuban player the Sox have signed since Yoan Moncada in 2015.
▪ Watching Mookie Betts play for the Dodgers sparked this thought: Is Dustin Pedroia the last prominent player who will spend his entire career with the Sox?
Maybe it’ll be Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers. But the long-term sustainability model Bloom espouses suggests he’d be in favor of trading players before they get past their prime years.
Thoughts from the Series
▪ The Dodgers have essentially used a two-man rotation in the postseason. Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw started nine of the first 15 postseason games with Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and Julio Urias dropping out of the rotation into hybrid roles.
They’ve gotten away with it so far, even though Gonsolin and May have pitched poorly.
“I’m just trying to take this as a learning experience,” said Gonsolin, who had a 1.94 ERA in eight regular-season starts then allowed eight earned runs in his first 7⅔ postseason innings.
Several scouts have said they were surprised the Dodgers didn’t use at least a three-man rotation given the expanded rosters.
▪ Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi is fun to watch. He’s unusually athletic at first base for a big guy, going into gymnastics-type splits when stretching for throws.
Choi also plays with a sense of joy, smiling throughout the game and engaging runners at first base. He’s a tough at-bat, too, with his willingness to take close pitches.
▪ Cody Bellinger has been playing the World Series with a brace on his right shoulder. He dislocated the joint celebrating his home run in Game 7 of the NLCS. His shoulder had popped out several times and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts indicated Bellinger would have surgery after the season.
For Morton, this is extra special
Rays righthander Charlie Morton was with the Astros when they won the 2017 World Series before huge crowds in Houston and Los Angeles.
Now he’s in a World Series played on a neutral field in front of small crowds amid the pandemic. The experience this season, he said, actually feels more meaningful.
“The thing that’s been obvious to me is how much the guys in the opposing dugout care about what’s going on on the field” he said.
"It would be one thing if everybody just showed up at an empty stadium and just went through the motions and said, ‘There are no fans here; it was a 60-game season; it doesn’t really matter.’
"But fortunately they gave the playoffs some teeth. They expanded it and fortunately we’re in a league of pros that care. You look across the field at the Blue Jays and Yankees and Astros and all those guys really cared and wanted to win.
"That’s why we came into [the World Series] with so much emotion. Because the guys we had to beat to get here were giving it everything they had. It’s been set up as a moment that still matters.
"People are still watching on TV, people come to the stadium. All of those things have built it up in a less-traditional way but a very unique and important way for us.
"Playing a playoff game with zero fans has got to be one of the weirdest and most bizarre things I’ve experienced in baseball. But at the same time one of the most memorable things I’ve experienced in baseball. I’ll appreciate everyone that made this possible for as long as I live.
“That’s for me personally. I can’t speak for how the fans perceive it and I can’t speak for how guys league-wide are going to perceive it. But the guys who are here feel the exact same way. It’s important to us.”
Former Astros president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow started his search for redemption by telling a Houston television station he had “no idea” his team ran an elaborate cheating scheme in 2017 and that he presented evidence of that to MLB. “I have a long track record of following the rules,” Luhnow claimed. Between players, coaches, and staff members, there were more than 50 people in the Astros organization who had knowledge of the sign stealing. It defies belief that this could go on for as long as it did without the general manager knowing about it. When the Red Sox were falsely accused of running a similar operation in 2018, Dave Dombrowski said from the start he didn’t believe it because he would have known about and stopped it. MLB’s investigation validated that. So essentially Luhnow’s defense is centered on his not having paid very close attention to his team. A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora seem sure to find their way back into the game. It would be a surprise if Luhnow does … The Nationals and hitting coach Kevin Long decided to part ways this month when they couldn’t come to agreement on a new contact. That changed Thursday when Long thought it over and returned to the team rather than search for a new position. Given the economic climate in baseball, Long won’t be the only coach or staffer who decides to stay with a job rather than risk going out on the market ... Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina took to Instagram after learning he was not a finalist for a Gold Glove and accused MLB of not wanting him to have as many of the awards as Johnny Bench because he’s Puerto Rican. There were a few problems with that: MLB doesn’t present that award, Rawlings does. And the all-time leader among catchers is Pudge Rodriguez with 13, and he’s from Puerto Rico. Bench is second with 10 and Molina has nine … Pending free agent Trevor Bauer went on record in 2019 saying he would take only one-year deals the rest of his career to maximize his value and promised he would let a friend shoot him in the groin with a paintball gun from 10 feet away if he went back on that. Read, aim, fire. Agent Rachel Luba said this past week that Bauer would be open to “all types of deals.” … The Cubs made deep cuts into their business and baseball operation departments. The layoffs included widely respected media relations director Peter Chase, who once held the same position with the Red Sox. David Howard, who was with the Sox as an instructor, scout, and minor league coordinator from 2004-18, also was let go along with respected pro scout Joe Nelson, another former Red Sox staffer … Mike Trout’s most recent playoff game was Oct. 5, 2014. There are 31 Hall of Famers (who played after 1902) who never appeared in the World Series. Trout is shaping up to be the next Ken Griffey Jr. … Happy 49th birthday to the great Pedro Martinez, whose presence on the mound at Fenway Park made it a civic holiday. Being around him on a daily basis when he played for the Mets was like going to graduate school for baseball; so extensive is his knowledge about the game even beyond pitching. Danny Darwin is 65. He was 34-31 with a 4.14 ERA for the Sox from 1991-94 and had three saves.