Update: MLB announced that all Spring Training games are cancelled and Opening Day will be delayed by at least two weeks. Good.
It should be clear now that baseball is not immune from the novel coronavirus. The NCAA is playing to empty arenas, and the NBA is suspending its season altogether. With Opening Day just a few weeks away, MLB needs to have a plan in place, and they need to communicate it to fans sooner-rather-than-later.
Some teams have already been affected, with San Francisco’s mayor announcing that gatherings over 1,000 people are to be suspended for two weeks. Across the bay in Oakland, gatherings of 1,000 people or more are banned until the end of March. This means that exhibition games between the A’s and Giants scheduled for March 23 and 24 won’t be played at Oracle Park or Oakland Coliseum. Instead, the teams are considering playing in Scottsdale and/or Mesa.
The Giants’ home opener doesn’t come until April 3rd, so if the ban only persists for two weeks, the Giants could carry on as mostly as normal (though there’s the real possibility the ban is extended). The A’s, on the other hand, are scheduled to play their first home game on MLB Opening Day on March 26th, five days before the ban is lifted.
At the time of this writing, the team was still considering alternative plans.
The A’s might not be the only team to play their home opener away from home, or without the hometown crowd. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington has placed restrictions on gatherings of more than 250 people. The Mariners are also slated to play their first game in Seattle on March 26th, but the team will either have to postpone, relocate their games, or play in an empty stadium.
Jeff Passan reports that MLB “is not at the point where it plans to stage games in front of no fans,” but he added that there’s a league-wide conference call scheduled for Friday and things in other leagues have changed so rapidly.
The Jazz and Thunder game on Wednesday night was postponed seconds before tip off.
As disruptive as any of these measures would be, they are absolutely necessary.
According to USA Today’s tracker, there were 1,231 confirmed active cases in the United States as of March 10th. There were 758 new cases reported on March 10th. The spread of the virus is not slowing down and cramming 40,000 people into a ballpark will only make it worse.
Most people may only experience mild symptoms, or not experience symptoms at all. The virus is far deadlier for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, people with autoimmune disorders, or those with preexisting respiratory problems.
Individuals from those populations can and should take extra precautions including avoiding highly populated spaces. Even putting so many otherwise healthy people into so small a space will create new carriers and make it harder for those most at risk to avoid the virus.
It’s good that local governments have prohibited such gatherings because hosting these events would be wildly irresponsible, and baseball teams can’t always be counted on to do the right thing.
Playing in front of an empty stadium would mean lost ticket sales, lost concession sales, parking fees, etc., so I wouldn’t expect teams to give that up on their own. Baseball teams, of course, can weather losing out on that revenue. The same can’t be said of the day-to-day concessions workers and ushers who lose needed shifts when the ballpark is empty. If MLB goes in that direction, I would hope that some accommodations be made for those impacted workers.
Alternatively, impacted MLB teams could relocate their games to less-affected areas, but this might encourage fans from heavily infected areas to travel with the team thereby spreading the virus, so if teams relocate for the shorter-term, they should discourage fans from relocating with them.
Playing to empty stadiums is precisely what NPB is doing for their preseason games. The KBO canceled their entire preseason, and postponing the start of their regular season is still on the table. Postponing the season entirely would be the safest solution for MLB, and whatever scheduling challenges are created are surely secondary to public health.
So far, two teams have had their home openers disrupted. If trends continue as they have, I would only expect that number to increase. Hopefully, MLB does everything it can to slow the spread even if it means cancelling games altogether so be it. Some things are more important than baseball.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.