Major League Baseball is scheduled to launch the 2020 regular season on Thursday, July 23. Opening Day had been scheduled for March 26, but the spread of the novel coronavirus and lengthy negotiations between the union and the league caused the nearly four-month delay.
A lot has changed, both in the world and in MLB, since the last meaningful game was played in October, when the Washington Nationals won the World Series. As such, we wanted to provide a primer for the season by focusing on five important off-the-field questions facing the season.
Let's get to it, shall we?
1. Will the season be completed?
Naturally, this is the biggest question facing MLB. It's no longer a matter of if the season will begin -- that seems assured -- but how long it will be allowed to carry on amid the pandemic.
The reality is that the United States has worse coronavirus numbers now than it did in March, when the league shut down and deemed play to be unsafe. There is more known now about COVID-19 and how it transmits, making it easier to install safety protocols that protect against infection, but there is no vaccine or therapeutic available to combat a novel virus that has caused the death of more than 130,000 American lives since March, and has potential long-term effects on even those who never experience symptoms.
Players and staff will be traveling across the country at a time when that's inadvisable. A fair amount will be living and commuting in known hot spots. They will be coming into contact with each other, and with individuals who had no real say in whether games would be played -- and who won't reap the same benefits, financial and otherwise, from those games being played. There are, then, serious moral and ethical concerns about going forth with MLB's plan.
There are also, less importantly, concerns about competitive integrity. Would the season be cancelled if a noncontender suffered an outbreak, or would the league look the other way as the team grew worse by installing a number of players from their pool roster? In other words, will MLB treat the coronavirus as an inconvenience, the way it would with a run of ankle sprains, or as a disease that could leave an unfortunate player or staff member on a ventilator, or worse? And what happens to the postseason if the combination of the flu season sends the country's numbers further through the roof? Will the league play on to secure the postseason bag?
These may seem like morbid questions (and hopefully they'll never come into focus), but they're questions that MLB needs to be willing and able to answer. That's part of the warp and woof of attempting to start the season at this point in time.
2. Will there be more testing snafus?
If MLB's plans are to go off without a hitch, then the league will need to have ironed out the testing issues that plagued the early part of summer training camps.
It is paramount that players and staff are tested frequently, and that the results are made available in a streamlined process -- for health and safety and competitive integrity reasons. During training camp, a delayed test meant that the player could sit out the day's workout and hope for better luck tomorrow. The solution won't be as straightforward during the season. For example, imagine that the Nationals have to scratch Max Scherzer, or that the Yankees have to sit Aaron Judge during an important late-season game because of a testing delay.
MLB has taken steps to straighten out the testing process, to its credit, but another consideration that should be noted here is that the league must stay true to its promise that it won't compromise the public's ability to get tested and have quick results. There are already questions about the validity of that claim, and the season hasn't yet begun.
3. Will more players opt out?
The closest thing the league has to an internal confidence gauge is the players' cooperation. If players start opting out left and right days or weeks into the season, then that will be a sure sign that things are not going well behind closed doors.
It's fair to wonder how the league (and other players) would react if, say, Angels outfielder Mike Trout decided to opt-out. A number of players made that decision during summer camp, with Dodgers left-hander David Price, Giants catcher Buster Posey, and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman representing the biggest names to withdraw from the season.
Is there a tipping point? It's anyone's guess.
4. Will fans be allowed?
Although it's a trivial matter compared to most of what's listed above, it is to be seen if teams will allow fans to attend games at any point during the season.
So far, MLB has seemed OK with letting local governments set the ordinances around that possibility. The Rangers, for instance, were intending to let up to 20,000 fans -- or 50 percent capacity -- attend their games as recently as last month, in accordance with Governor Greg Abbott's declaration earlier this summer.
Plans can change, especially during a pandemic, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if a team (or six) try milking extra revenue from their home schedule by ushering in a limited number of fans.
5. Will MLB be forced to alter plans?
Speaking of local ordinances and changed plans, it's possible MLB will have to move games or alter travel based on how the pandemic takes shape over the coming months.
Already, the Nationals, Dodgers, and Blue Jays have experienced some issues on a local level as it pertains to coronavirus-related provisions. It's not hard to envision more issues popping up.
Of course, if hassling with local governments over this or that matter is the biggest headache MLB faces this season, then things have likely gone off well.