Major League Baseball was not the first American professional sports league to return to play during the pandemic when it started the 2020 season on July 23. By then, both the National Women's Soccer League and Major League Soccer had gotten tournaments off the ground. Since Dr. Anthony Fauci delivered the ceremonial first pitch, the Women's and Men's National Basketball Associations, as well as the National Hockey League, have all lit their candles.
What MLB was, and what MLB remains, is the only of those leagues to take its show on the road. The other five have not sent their clubs traveling to and fro across the country (MLS, however, intends to play in home markets later this month). Instead, they have been tucked away in secured bubbles. The WNBA, NBA, and MLS made their homes in various parts of Florida; the NWSL held a tournament in Utah; and the NHL is off and skating in Canada, which has a better handle on the pandemic than the United States does.
It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that MLB is the only one of those leagues whose resumption has become endangered. Last week, commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly told MLB Players Association head Tony Clark that the season could be scrapped soon if the COVID-19 situation didn't improve. Manfred's warning came after the Miami Marlins had suffered an outbreak, but before the St. Louis Cardinals had engendered one of their own. The season was not canceled on Monday, a presumed potential stopping point by those privy to the conversation. Whatever spirit that had inhibited Manfred days earlier was gone by the weekend, when he told ESPN's Karl Ravech that, among other things, he was not a "quitter."
Maybe not, but Manfred is the overseer of a league that has had, in two weeks' time, two COVID-19 outbreaks; that has had to sideline 20 percent of the league due to those outbreaks (or related complications); that has a team who is unable to enter its host country; that has seen more and more veteran players opt out instead of playing on; and that has already seen one player lost for the season due to the heart ailment developed because of a bout with COVID.
Manfred may not have plans to quit, but perhaps he has regrets. Between MLB's season teetering on the edge and the comparable success of the other American sports league, it's fair to wonder: did MLB err by eschewing a bubble? CBS Sports spent the past week asking various MLB front-office types what they thought. Here's what came from those conversations.
It's important to remember that MLB did consider the bubble concept. A month into the pandemic, CBS Sports was the first to report on the possibility of the league employing a three-hub arrangement. MLB would have had teams stationed across Arizona, Texas, and Florida, ostensibly playing a regional schedule (similar to the current agreement) at various big-league and minor-league stadiums. MLB was said to have again pondered the bubble after the Philadelphia Phillies experienced an outbreak at their spring-training facilities in mid-June.
The accepted explanation around the league is that the bubble concept was left on the drawing room floor because the players were not on board with the idea. One source, who indicated that the owners are responsible for much of what ails the league, said this aspect of the season falls on the players. Another nodded to the length of the season as a reason why players objected.
"[Being] quarantined in a city, I was reading for -- if we play -- a couple of months, it would be difficult for some guys. What are you going to do with family members?" said Trout, whose wife Jessica recently gave birth to the couple's first child. "[The] mentality is that we want to get back as soon as we can. But it has to be realistic. It can't be sitting in our hotel rooms, and just going from the field to the hotel room and not being able to do anything. I think that's pretty crazy."
The players' reluctance to leave their families behind for months at a time was understandable. So was their optimism that the country's pandemic response would allow for improved traveling conditions later in the year, paving the way for a season that was shorter but more conventional.
"I think it would be a weird product on the field, guys wouldn't be as motivated, we'd be playing in 100 degrees in the summer of Arizona," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling said. "Why don't we wait a month, get it to more of a safer place, and play a little bit less games."
Unfortunately, that hope was wasted. The pandemic was in a worse state when the league started play in July than when it shuttered operations nearly four months prior. There were 17,656 new positive tests nationwide on March 26, the originally scheduled Opening Day; comparatively, there were more than 33,021 positive tests on July 24, Opening Day 2.0, according to covidtracking.com.
The league and its owners were not responsible for the pandemic's re-ignition. What they were responsible for was the seemingly disproportionate amount of time that was spent on finances instead of health protocols. (Even now, the two sides are having to play catch-up on seemingly obvious manners, like the hiring and installation of compliance officers.) They were responsible, too, for creating an untrusting, confrontational environment rather than the collaborative one shared by other leagues, wherein players were more accepting of the bubble.
More is known about COVID-19 now than in March: how it, despite being a respiratory disease, affects the pulmonary system; how it is more likely to spread through the air than on surfaces; how it incubates, with better estimates on the lag time between infection and contagion, between infection and a positive test, and between infection and the onset of symptoms; and so on. All that additional information, plus lived experience, has led to some course-correction.
Marlins outfielder Harold Ramirez, who was one of the 18 Miami players to test positive for COVID-19, suggested last week that MLB should consider changing lanes. "Right now [a bubble] is a good idea," he said, "that could avoid something like [Miami's outbreak]."
The majority of the front-office types surveyed by CBS Sports thought that a bubble was preferable, but not everyone in the game agrees that it was doable, or that it would've worked (and not just because of the obvious ethical issues).
Independent of the players' consent, the main argument against the bubble's viability concerns logistics. MLB's needs are so different from other leagues, in terms of size and scope, that it is thought that a complex approach would not be feasible.
There is some mathematical validity to this point. One NBA team's roster comprises 15 players; a complete MLB squad, the 30-player roster plus the alternate-site reserves, is 60. If a single MLB team equals four NBA teams, then the entire MLB would equate to about four whole NBAs. The intake process, where the players are tested upon arrival and then quarantined for a length before they're permitted to congregate and resume practice, would have required four times as many hotel rooms and beds, four times as many meals, and four times as much diligence.
"It would've been an incredibly massive undertaking," a National League executive said.
Under the three-hub proposal, MLB would've split the teams and spread the demands. The league still would have had to find a way for 10 teams to practice daily, and for their alternate-site players to remain fit. Even if the schedule was built in a way where teams split five ballparks, rotating hosting duties, those backfield scrimmages needed a place of their own.
Other complications would have included the weather, since there's only so many domed or climate-controlled stadiums to go around; the differences between big-league and minor-league facilities for training and recovery purposes; and the differences between big-league and minor-league facilities for lighting and gameplay purposes. If the Toronto Blue Jays' forced nomadic lifestyle proves anything, it's that even the lighting is better in the Show.
It wouldn't have helped MLB's efforts to keep the season off the ground that Florida, Texas, and Arizona were all COVID-19 hotspots entering July. "The facilities exist there, obviously," a veteran American League front office member said, "but the environments are ... nope."
There is another argument against life in the bubble, one that veers toward nihilism and goes like this: no amount of strategic planning would have prevented the virus from eventually infiltrating and wreaking havoc on the league's best-laid plans. "The belief is this thing is not controllable," the AL exec said, "so we would have outbreaks no matter where we staged it."
Other leagues haven't yet had their bubbles penetrated by COVID-19. Because of the longer runtime and the size of the involved party, MLB might have found it difficult to keep the virus out -- and not just because of poorly or incompletely designed protocols, or careless behavior. The simple reality is that the U.S.'s efforts to contain COVID-19 have failed. Current forecasts indicate that one in 52 Americans is infected. Even if that's an overstatement, the league would've had to keep more than 2,000 individuals away from the virus for more than two months.
Would MLB have been able to maintain the high-grade diligence, the constant testing, and the good luck to pull it off? Perhaps. Would it likely have been preferable to what MLB went with instead? Based on the first two weeks of the season, it's hard to argue otherwise.