Will our “Natural Pastime” be the first sport to return to the field of play during the Coronavirus Pandemic?
That’s a question that hopefully has an affirmative answer. But, it has to come with strong ground rules.
A recent story by ESPN’s Jeff Passan lays out a multi-pronged approach to get baseball back on the field as early as May. It goes without saying that doctors and scientists will have to sign off on this proposed plan before it is implemented.
Under this arrangement, all of the teams would be contained in the Phoenix, Arizona area. Chase Field, home of the Diamondbacks, along with spring training facilities would serve as the hosts for the games to be played without fans in attendance. The teams would be sequestered inside Phoenix area hotels.
Obviously, the lack of fans in the stands will be a huge financial obstacle for MLB.
Players could take a pay cut (not likely) or the league could apply for and receive money from the Government’s Coronavirus Pandemic Relief Package. If that happens, the proverbial “optics” would be terrible. The government offering billions of dollars to a sports league so its player’s salaries would be covered would be the ultimate in tone-deafness.
A few in-game changes would need to be adopted for the players’ safety.
The home plate umpire would set up six feet away from the batter and catcher. An electronic strike zone would be used. Hopefully, the umpires union signs off on this.
There would be NO mound visits. This is something baseball should impose on a permanent basis.
After a second down play in football, Bill Belichick doesn’t walk into the huddle with running back James White snd return to the sideline with Sony Michel. Mound visits slow down the pace of play. Let’s use these cataclysmic times to make changes to a sport that embraces change begrudgingly.
Another adjustment would be the teams playing 7 inning doubleheaders. Normally, I would oppose this, but in these desperate times, desperate measures must be embraced.
Also, the players would sit in empty stands, not dugouts. That would send a strong message to fans and the American public that social distancing is critical in fighting this deadly virus.
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Baseball can be played with social distancing in mind much easier than other sports. Defense does not mandate close proximity to your opponent. Any close contact would be limited and swift.
The key to this plan working is testing, testing, and more testing. The players would have to be tested on a daily basis. Would the American public be okay with professional athletes having endless access to critical test kits, while many citizens can’t?
That is the biggest question, because, once again, the optics could be horrible if people in dire need aren’t tested while athletes are routinely tested, just to play a game.
Arizona would be one of the safest states since it has had 2,575 people test positive for Covid-19 with 73 deaths. A rate of 36 positive tests per 100,000 people. In comparison to other states those numbers, while still alarming, aren’t as drastic as hot spots like New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan. In New York City alone a nearly unfathomable 900 people per 100,000 have tested positive.
Baseball has been the sport that people have embraced during national crises. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted that baseball keep playing during World War 2 to serve as a positive diversion.
Who can forget President George W. Bush firing a first-pitch strike when baseball returned after the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.
It is easy to criticize baseball. Any innovations usually happen glacially. The players union seems to resist any modifications to improve its own sport.
At this point, playing outdoors in the hot, dry desert makes more sense than playing basketball in small, enclosed gyms or hockey in baron ice rinks. Football is a religion in our country while basketball is a cool, hip sport.
It seems strange that baseball would take the lead and be the first sport to return as our country and the entire world hopes that this pandemic will relent.
But if you believe in the famous Shakespeare quote that “What’s Past Is Prologue”, you shouldn’t be surprised.
Play ball. And stay safe.
John Sapochetti is Co-Host
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