As I write this, the world is in an uncertain state, and baseball too is in that bracket. MLB owners have gathered together to discuss a proposal to get baseball moving again. Good, this is what is needed: A proactive approach from all concerned to bring baseball back. Why is this a necessity? Baseball isn’t just America’s national pastime, it’s also the game that gives people a sense of normality. That is needed now more than ever with the current crisis. The owners are looking at 4th July weekend as a start date with Spring Training in mid-June. It sounds like a good plan doesn’t it?
However, let’s not jump the gun. Sean Doolittle (pitcher for the Washington Nationals), came out with a blistering set of tweets that has brought the conversation firmly where it should be: The health concerns of everybody involved in getting baseball back into action.
Bear with me, but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season. Here are some things I’ll be looking for in the proposal…
— Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) May 11, 2020
Doolittle laid out a well thought out argument about the long term effects of coronavirus which include respiratory issues and “…evidence of kidney, intestinal, and liver damage, as well as neurological malfunctions, blood clots & strokes”. He goes on to cover more valid points culminating in two vital questions that need to be answered first: “1) what’s the plan to ethically acquire enough tests? 2) what’s the protocol if a player, staff member, or worker contracts the virus?” He stressed that “We want to play. And we want everyone to stay safe.”
Currently, the United States is the worst affected country hit by coronavirus in the world (based on death rate). So Doolittle is right to be concerned. The owners need to take his points on board for the sake of everyone involved but also for the sake of baseball’s dignity.
MLB aside, the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan have become the first professional sports league in the world to allow fans back into the stadium (having used robotic fans and mannequins to replace real fans since they began on April 11th). The KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) have also started their league. Eleven Sports in Taiwan have been broadcasting CPBL matches for free on their twitter page, including providing free highlights of every game. The KBO have agreed a deal with ESPN to broadcast live games while MLB is not up and running. This has had a peculiar effect on the world of baseball – more fans are flocking to CPBL and KBO to get their baseball fix than ever before. It’s too early to tell whether this current spell of far-east baseball fandom will last. It does, however, provide baseball with hope: hope that it is possible to return with stringent measures in place.
Change is coming: Is this the end for traditionalists?
There has been talk of introducing designated hitters in the National League, seven-inning double-headers, and a reduced 82 game season. I can hear the traditionalists shudder. There will be changes in the short term but this could be the perfect opportunity to change for the long term. In recent years, Rob Manfred (MLB commissioner) has been implementing changes to improve the speed of the game: now is his chance to really drive those changes through. However, there must be a word of caution. The beauty of baseball has been that there is one format wherever you go in the world: a bat, a ball, nine players a side, and 9 nine innings. Let’s compare this to cricket, where you have Twenty20 cricket, one day cricket, Test match cricket, and now The Hundred (yes that’s correct, 4 different formats for one sport). The confusion around formats could ruin the game that so many love. Baseball needs to make the long term changes where necessary but I think hands need to be off the core format of baseball.
Baseball has been here before during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 – although many didn’t take heed at the time, it turned out to be one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Even Babe Ruth caught the virus and was badly affected. However, he came back stronger than ever and helped the Red Sox win the world series in 1918.
This is a once in a lifetime event, and so mistakes will be made by those involved in the decision-making process of baseball’s next steps – but even as the great Babe Ruth said: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run”. There may be multiple strikes, but this pandemic could be an opportunity for baseball’s biggest home run.