These days, you begin with “if.” If there is a baseball season.
Because all plans for 2020 have to begin with the hopeful in just about every realm, including sports. There is no certainty of games this year, and if there is a need for a vaccine for COVID-19 for games to return, then perhaps 2021 is in peril as well.
For now, the best chance for MLB to play in 2020 — maybe the only chance — is the Arizona plan, which calls for spring training and games to be housed exclusively in that state with no crowds. There would be a hope that with greater testing and with knowledge of who has antibodies and immunities from COVID-19 that a small, contained universe could be formed of players and support staff, from coaches to food prep workers to hotel employees.
Because Arizona hosts half of spring training, there are 10 facilities and — as opposed to in spread-out Florida — no ballparks are farther apart than the 52 miles that separate the A’s complex in Mesa from the Rangers/Royals complex in Surprise. Add in the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and perhaps a few centrally located university fields, and having places to play might not be a problem.
But so much else is, including key elements such as how much risk is too much risk to even try this, how sure can MLB be that it is not draining personnel or supplies that could be helping the general fight against the pandemic, and what happens if even one person in this baseball biosphere comes down with the virus?
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend that somewhere in the next 30-60 days, the major hurdles can be overcome and we can ask more mundane questions like: What kind of game should be played? I have spoken to dozens of agents, scouts, players and executives the past few weeks to pick their brains on what they want, and two camps formed:
Those who say there is so much disruption to this season already that having a game that has as few changes as possible will be best to not further unsettle fans.
Those who say that this season is going to look like no other no matter what (starting with that it may be played in one state with no crowds) and if you are not going to use that kind of season as a real-time laboratory, then it really will be a waste.
I side with the latter camp. A chance exists here to experiment on a one-shot basis to see what works and doesn’t — and what fans like and don’t. If it flies, great, then incorporate it when more normal times return. If it doesn’t, think of it like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979 — a bad idea retired quickly.
Some thoughts on what I would try:
A return to no interleague play: I am fine with interleague play. Sure, stick with it if you are positive the only games that are going to be played in 2020 are in Arizona. But if there is any chance to relocate at least a portion of games and improve an economy in another state, then you probably have to think about AL teams just playing AL teams and NL teams playing NL teams for this season.
Imagine if, come August, games can be played in Florida. If MLB is playing interleague games, then there is no subset of teams that can be relocated there that wouldn’t necessitate travel between Arizona and Florida to play games. But if you moved, say, the entire AL there and there were no interleague games, those teams can just continue to play each other in spring training sites and the homes of the Rays and Marlins.
I think there would be a psychological boost for the game and the country if slowly games could move to other locales, so for this year, not having interleague games is worth the chance to get that boost.
No interleague games mean one team in each 15-team league would be off each day.
The universal DH: I am a fan of putting the DH in both leagues, but this is more about issues for this season. Pitchers are already going to be put at the most risk by having to have a second quick spring training. No reason to put them under further duress by asking them to hit.
Amish baseball: Readers of this column know I have long called for turning off all in-game video that players can study during the game. You want to study video before a game or after, go for it. But once the game begins, it is player vs. player, and tech departments have to bow out. This will quicken the pace and remove some of the elements that led to the illegal sign stealing that ensnared the Astros and Red Sox.
Put microphones on as many players, managers and coaches as possible: This is the approved use of electronics during the game. We are going to have to adapt to not having the familiar sounds of fans in the park — and possibly the lack of postgame comments players give reporters. Thus, a different kind of noise and commentary will be valuable. And the experimentation with this on a few ESPN spring games, before the sport was shut down by the pandemic, was a big success.
Seven-inning doubleheaders: The pledge between MLB and the union is to play as many games as possible by removing off-days and playing more frequent doubleheaders. But keep in mind that is going to take personnel and there is not going to be a minor league season running concurrently as a feeder system. MLB is talking about having teams carry as many as 50 players from which to pick daily as a way to have fresh bodies and arms to combat a condensed schedule, injuries and the lack of anywhere else to train to stay ready.
Last season, 15 teams, or half the league, used at least 50 players. So anything that taxes the body less will be helpful. Plus, I can imagine the seven-inning doubleheader becoming a selling point next year — more baseball for the same price in places that have trouble drawing — while saving the time of playing a few extra innings. And this could be a way to gain more off-days for players to rest their bodies during a standard season if two games are played in one day more frequently.
An automated strike zone: I know MLB doesn’t think the technology is ready. But is the league going to have enough umpires to call balls and strikes? These are generally older men, a demographic that could be problematic to bring in such close proximity to hitters and catchers. The automated zone trials have not been consistent, but this might be the time to try tinkering and speeding up the inclusion of balls and strikes being called by technology (sorry for more electronics on the field).
A pitch clock: I don’t love it. But let’s see if including it this year really does motivate the hitters to get in the darn box and stay there, and the pitchers to throw the ball.
No mound visits: You want to change pitchers, the manager does it from the dugout. The catchers and pitchers better work it out before games and between innings. This is the true social distancing of baseball.
Expand the playoffs: Let’s try the plan MLB wants to go to in 2022 — seven teams from each league, the top seed gets a bye, the other two division winners and the top wild card get to play a first-round best-of-three exclusively at home and, starting with the best record in that group, pick their opponents. This would provide a good test run of what a significant change like this would look like.
I heard from many in the game calling for an NCAA-like tournament with maybe every team making the playoffs and trying to have some March Madness in, say, November at neutral sites. I am all in favor of something radical. I think one really out-there item should be tried. But not that. Instead, this:
Bonus batter: This has long been championed by my MLB Network colleague Tom Verducci. The concept is: Once a game, in a moment of his choice, a manager can use any player to hit. The best player gets the ball in the biggest moments of NFL and NBA games, but a 3-2 game in the ninth could be Aroldis Chapman vs. the 7-8-9 hitters on the Angels with the likelihood that Mike Trout doesn’t bat. I know that is one of the beauties of baseball. The democracy. That every player hits in order. That you have to have a whole team to win.
But for this one strange year — if we get to have this one strange year — let’s take a look at this. Because it will emphasize the stars of the game when we need them more than ever. It will create an extra level of strategy that will be so much fun to debate — do you use that bonus at-bat with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning or always save it? If you are the Cubs, do you give that bonus at-bat to Javy Baez or Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo?
We will want people talking about the sport. Hopefully, we will be talking about the sport.
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