Delayed Opening Day Only the Start of Coronavirus Fallout for MLB

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 14, 2020

A worker moves a kiosk at Sloan Park, the spring training site of the Chicago Cubs, in Mesa, Ariz., Friday, March 13, 2020. Major League Baseball has suspended the rest of its spring training game schedule because of the coronavirus outbreak. The league is also delaying the start of its regular season by at least two weeks (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Exactly what the future of the coming baseball season looks like remains difficult to ascertain through the daily fog and rapidly shifting landscape of life during a pandemic. But one thing becoming increasingly clear is this: Baseball's tentative plans to start the season on a two-week delay of its original March 26 start date appear as realistic as finding a pack of toilet paper at your local grocery store.

It's simple math, which became clear when Major League Baseball formally, finally, announced early Friday evening that spring training was suspended, and that players could elect to return home, remain in their spring training cities or return to their club's home city. Given the break and the need for a return to even an abbreviated spring training, it will be impossible for players to be ready for the new April 9 start date.

"It really would be a guess at this point," Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said on a day filled with conference calls and piecemeal information when asked how long players would need to prepare following this mid-spring timeout. "I think a lot of it has to do with when [Opening Day] is and how long we've been down.

"Our players, while staying safe, are going to make sure they're as ready as possible. I think we're talking a few weeks [for players to be ready for the season]."

Some industry sources think it will be May before the MLB season begins. Two sources say they've heard Memorial Day Weekend as a target date, and multiple other sources swear the season will not begin until June. Clearly, the coronavirus and the health of the nation will have much to say about all of it.

Three dizzying days of cascading developments and have left MLB playing "follow the leader" relative to decisions taken by the NBA, NHL and NCAA and have left players alternately resigned to what is happening and frustrated by answers not coming quickly enough.

So as commissioner Rob Manfred and players union boss Tony Clark sat down in Phoenix on Friday to start figuring out the myriad details in front of them, they ranged from the smaller (will players be allowed to leave during this break in spring camps or would they, in effect, be forced to stay by clubs?) to the larger (if the schedule winds up being reduced to, say, 140 games, or 130, will players be paid their full salaries or will the money be prorated?). And when would those checks begin? Players are not paid until Opening Day, so with a delay of the season comes a delay in paychecks.

When President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency Friday afternoon, it added another wrinkle, as MLB's commissioner has the power to suspend checks in the case of a national emergency.

Major League Baseball's decision to cancel the remainder of spring training has left many around the league unsure of when the regular season will start.
Major League Baseball's decision to cancel the remainder of spring training has left many around the league unsure of when the regular season will start.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Still, the belief in the industry is that players on 40-man rosters will begin receiving their salaries at the start of the season, whenever that is.

"The important thing for us all to understand and appreciate is that Commissioner Manfred and Tony Clark and their staffs are working together on what's best for the game," Dayton Moore, Kansas City Royals general manager, said. "I look at this as an opportunity to come together and do what's best for our industry.

"I'm confident in conversations I've had that everybody has the right spirit to do that."

New York Yankees player representative Zack Britton told the New York Post's George King that the club had voted unanimously to stay in Tampa and work out as a team. The Red Sox were still in the process of polling various team members to see who was planning to stay and who was planning to go home. John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations, told St. Louis reporters that he expects 10-15 players will stay in camp and that the club will have a "skeleton" crew of coaches.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were in the process Friday night of checking with their players to see who preferred to keep working at the team's Glendale, Arizona, spring complex and who wanted to return home to Los Angeles. Part of the complication for the club is making sure each site is staffed sufficiently with coaches for however many players work out in each locale.

"I think right now the health and well-being of everybody and their families," [overrides any preference for players to stay in Arizona and work out], Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, said. "Some guys who have families here are going to want to stay. Others are going to want to go home. Others are going to want to go to L.A.

"From our expectation, it's about facilitating whatever guys choose to do and support them the best that we can as we continue to learn more." The San Diego Padres appeared to be the only Cactus League team to hold a formal workout on Friday morning, though a club spokesperson said later in the day, following the news that players were free to go, that the club was unsure of how many players might leave.

The Yankees voted unanimously to remain at the spring training complex in Florida throughout baseball's hiatus due to the coronavirus.
The Yankees voted unanimously to remain at the spring training complex in Florida throughout baseball's hiatus due to the coronavirus.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The choices to be made on every team raise an interesting dilemma for all but the Yankees. Might those players who decide to leave a camp create dissension within their own teams? Will teammates be understanding? Given world conditions and family concerns, the latter is almost certain, but human nature can be unpredictable.

"Clearly, this is an unprecedented period in our world's history, certainly in our country's history," Sam Kennedy, president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox, said. "None of us at the Red Sox have ever lived through anything like this, and hopefully, God willing, we will never have to live through anything like this again."

MLB's first known coronavirus was administered on Friday to an Arizona Diamondbacks minor leaguer "out of an abundance of caution," general manager Mike Hazen said. The results of the test have yet to be made available

"Testing is a much broader issue than how it relates to a sports team," Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said. "We're far behind in this country as a whole, so our stance is that the more testing, the better, and we hope our country gets to the point where we can have a lot of testing so we can better assess the situation and make better decisions going forward.

"But specifically as it relates to the team, right now no player in camp has met the current standard in this country to be tested."

That even includes manager David Ross, who was so sick with the flu that he missed a game last month.

"Right now, it's a really high threshold just to get a test," Epstein said.

"There have been a shockingly low number of tests throughout the country, and we all hope that changes soon."

Initially, the industry believed that keeping players in camp and attempting to limit their outside exposure in different social and geographic settings was the smartest thing to do, health-wise. But Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's positive test in the NBA on Wednesday night seemed to be the final straw for so many in sports nationally, including those in baseball.

"I think what hit home is what happened in the NBA," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "When clubhouses now are in jeopardy, and I think [the NBA] handled it beautifully. Where it goes from here and how long has yet to be determined, but I think they handled it the way they should have handled it.

New Cubs manager David Ross was unable to get a test for the coronavirus despite recently exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
New Cubs manager David Ross was unable to get a test for the coronavirus despite recently exhibiting flu-like symptoms.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

"And then you hear about Tom Hanks," Melvin said of the Hollywood actor who also tested positive for the virus. "It becomes real. Not that it wasn't before, but more so when you hear stuff like that. Especially within the sports community."

Given what's going on in life outside of the baselines, clubs beyond Arizona are bracing for the coronavirus to hit them, toobe it players or elsewhere in the organization.

"We are realistic given what's happening in Boston," Kennedy said. "It feels like it is an inevitability that we'll have a positive test. Whether it's someone in Fenway Park or someone in our front-office family."

Certainly, MLB has laid back and let others lead as the pandemic has multiplied and crossed borders. Maybe because the NBA and NHL were in the middle of their seasons while baseball's was still a month away, the other sports felt a greater urgency to act. Yet going ahead and playing spring training gamesespecially this weekwhich traditionally draw a large percentage of older fans, appears to have been an enormous error in judgment at worst, and obtuse at best.

Now, as players exit camps, there is a whole new set of issues. As many players return to their families, what risks might they be exposed to? And if they are infected, will they be tested upon their return in time to identify them as a carrier?

"It's definitely a concern, and it's one of the things we're talking through," Boston's Kennedy said. "Not just the country they're from, but making sure we're expecting everyone's safety and travel.

"These are things we're working through as we speak, but we're very mindful of it, and depending on the situation in each country and the player's personal situation, it's not right when people disperse to keep them from their families."

There are myriad other issues to sort through as a result of baseball's hiatus, even if largely insignificant when measured against the health threat. Still, they are important to those affected. Such as: Will rosters freeze during this spring timeout, or will teams still be allowed to send players to the minor leagues or trade them?

Also, beyond each club's 40-man roster, all of the minor leaguers now are in camp. Some clubs, like the Padres, already have decided to send them home. Others are still evaluating what to doand if they keep the minor leaguers in camp in an informal setting with no games, how to continue to feed them, as minor leaguers do not receive the 40-man roster per diem and represent baseball's version of a minimum-wage worker (or, in reality, less than minimum wage). MLB recommended Friday that clubs go ahead and send their minor leaguers home, so it is assumed that all 30 clubs will wind up doing just that.

Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and his counterparts across baseball are trying to plan for all manner of contingencies as a result of MLB's decision to suspend spring training, from player travel to when the season will start to how long the season will be.
Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and his counterparts across baseball are trying to plan for all manner of contingencies as a result of MLB's decision to suspend spring training, from player travel to when the season will start to how long the season will be.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

So much discussion is still to be had, and so many decisions are still to be made. Kennedy said that as of now, MLB is still looking at playing its full 162-game schedule and that the games missed on the front end in April would be added on to the back end of the schedule.

That seems problematic enough if only two or three weeks' worth of games are missed, in that the postseason would be pushed, seemingly, into mid-November or later. But given the current suspension of spring training and the very real and increasing chatter that the season may not open until May or even June, playing all 162 games also seems to be a growing impossibility.

Everything, though, is being discussed, Kennedy said, including playing regular-season games at spring training sites and moving regular-season games from states that are in lockdown regarding large crowds (Washington, California, New York, Massachusetts) into empty stadiums in other states.

"I'm confident everyone will pull together," said Kennedy, who met the other day in Boston with mayor Marty Walsh and members of city hall. One of the things the mayor told them, he said, is that "we've got to figure out a way to do everything we can to get sports back as soon as possible. Because, certainly, in the country and in the New England region, we need that distraction."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.