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Gregor Chisholm: As pre-pandemic opening day passes quietly, MLB works toward a credible season — not a full one

Gregor Chisholm: As pre-pandemic opening day passes quietly, MLB works toward a credible season — not a full one
Sports
Major League Baseball has abandoned any hope of playing a 162-game schedule, but remains committed to getting through as much of the regular season as possible. What that might look like remains to be seen.

Commissioner Rob Manfred conceded during an interview with ESPN on Wednesday night that a full season is not going to happen in 2020. Even with the possibility of extending games into November, far too much time would have been missed because of the coronavirus to make up the difference.

MLB is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which stipulate gatherings of more than 50 people should be banned until mid-May. Manfred said four infectious disease experts have been advising the league on its next steps and the World Health Organization has been consulted as well.

Baseball and every other major professional sport remain in limbo because of the global pandemic. Games won’t begin until the virus is under control, but at this point all anyone has to follow are projections. There’s no set date for when the sport will resume, although May is still the goal.

“I think we need to have a regular season with a credible number of games,” Manfred told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “I think we should have a post-season format that focuses on providing the most possible entertaining product to our fans at a very difficult time in our history. Overall, I think our goal is to play as many baseball games as we possibly can, given the limitations we have with public health concerns.”

In other words, the league and its players’ association intend on finding creative solutions. The incentive to maximize games is obvious. The more games played, the higher the income will be for the players. Even if fans can’t buy tickets because of health concerns, owners would generate revenue through television and advertising deals.

There are a lot of scenarios at play for an abbreviated season, and according to Manfred nothing is off the table. The MLB and MLBPA remain locked in negotiations on how to proceed during this layoff, but when it comes to 2020 and the number of games, the two sides have plenty in common.

Spring training typically lasts for six weeks and starting pitchers need almost all that time to get stretched out. Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro recently suggested teams might require four weeks of camp before the season could safely begin. One creative way to shorten the delay would be to expand rosters early in the year or loosen the restrictions around optioning players to the minors. Allow teams to carry more pitchers for a couple of weeks until pitchers start going deeper into starts. Limit the exhibition games, maximize the ones that count.

Another idea is scheduling regular doubleheaders. Playing at least 18 innings in one day on a semi-regular basis might not be sustainable, but Jays general manager Ross Atkins recently floated the possibility of playing seven-inning games on doubleheader days. To be clear, Atkins wasn’t presenting this as his own idea, instead simply referencing the format that has been used in the minors.

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition. The game, its players and even some of its fans are often resistant to change. Normally I’m a purist too, but this is one year when all of that must be tossed aside. Anything is better than nothing. The deadly coronavirus has already impacted so many, when baseball finally returns it means society has turned a corner.

“We’ve had some really positive conversations with our players association about relaxing some of the rules that govern our schedule,” Manfred said. “They are very focused on returning to play and playing as many games as possible. When you have that kind of positive dialogue, it creates an opportunity to do things that are a little different. You’re not committed to them over the long term because this year is a unique circumstance. There are a lot of ideas out there and we really are open to all of them.”

Additional flexibility would come from extending the post-season into late fall. Baseball has reached its latest possible dates in the cold-weather climates. It’s difficult enough to play in Detroit in October, nobody wants to be there a month later. But there are solutions to these problems. The post-season could be held at neutral sites, either big-league stadiums in warm climates or ballparks with a roof. If there are restrictions on fans, spring training facilities also could be used when the weather turns cold.

One obvious risk with extending the season: Even if the coronavirus is under control by the summer, there’s no guarantee the disease won’t return in the fall. Some experts have been speculating the virus will become seasonal, which according to various projections could temporarily flatten the curve over time before it climbs again late in the year.

MLB will have to consider those risks and many others with its infectious disease specialists. A lot of questions, not many answers, and no set timeline for when they might be found. Baseball officials, like everyone else, are hunkering down and hoping for the best.

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“I think the exact number (of games) we see as reasonable is going to depend on when we get the go-ahead to play,” Manfred said. “I don’t have some absolute number in my mind that’s a make or break. I think we must evaluate the situation. I also think we need to be creative in terms of what the schedule looks like, what the post-season format looks like.

“Obviously our fans love the 162-game season and the post-season format that we have. We’re probably not going to be able to do that this year, I think that’s clear and it does give us an opportunity to do some different things, to experiment and to make sure we provide as many games as possible and as entertaining a product as possible.”
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