March 2020

Where Does MLB Go From Here?

There should be Nationals baseball being played today.

Opening Day represents a new beginning for all 30 MLB teams all vying to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the grueling season.

The MLB season is delayed – what’s next for players? Photo via Getty Images

This Opening Day was supposed to be extra special for the Nats, as we were supposed to celebrate our team’s first championship in franchise history. I was extra excited to make the pilgrimage to New York for Sunday’s tilt against the Mets and get to rub our success in the faces of one of our biggest rivals. Today, we were supposed to watch Max Scherzer dominate the New York lineup and watch the new offense take on a difficult opponent in Jacob DeGrom. Instead, we’re stuck at home watching reruns of previous Opening Days and the magical playoff run of last season.

These unprecedented changes impact everyone involved in orchestrating the baseball season – from the players and high-ranking officials to the concession workers and security guards at Nationals Park. What should MLB do to ensure their safety while also allowing fans to enjoy one of the most special times of the baseball season?

As was announced a few weeks ago, Major League Baseball won’t start its season until at least mid-May. If the trajectory of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase at the rate which it has been recently, that mid-May date would likely be pushed back even further. In a best-case scenario where the season does start in May, a second “Spring Training” might be necessary for players to get back in the swing of things. That would even further delay the MLB season until early-to-mid June. Never in the history of Major League Baseball, a storied organization that can trace its roots back to the late 19th century and survived two World Wars, has Opening Day been pushed back more than one week. That was in 1981, when a players’ strike occurred.

There are a few proposals on how to play some sort of a full season once this pandemic ends. Commissioner Rob Manfred raised the idea of playing weekly doubleheaders of seven innings, which count as official games under the rulebook. Still, aside from the devoted fan base, having these weekly doubleheaders may worsen the attendance issue in MLB. Devoted baseball fans, or baseball purists like myself, might take issue with having seven-inning games instead of a traditional nine. Most importantly, the players may be opposed to playing eight or more games some weeks with the demanding travel schedule of an MLB team and with an inadequate amount of breaks in the schedule. Playoffs also might be pushed back as far as Christmas, which would not only provide for a weird phenomenon of having winter baseball but also cause the 2021 season to be delayed. This would also very likely mean that the World Series, or even the entirety of the playoffs, would be played at stadiums in the Sun Belt or in domed stadiums. I’ve never liked that the Super Bowl is played at a neutral site, and would be opposed to seeing a World Series between, say, the Yankees and Nationals, being played in Dallas or San Diego. Although having World Series games in domed stadiums would allow cities like Seattle to experience what it’s like to host a World Series, it takes away the special playoff atmosphere in a city. Additionally, it further constrains the amount and type of fans able to attend playoff/World Series games. Of course, if COVID-19 weakens by May, it is possible that games could be played without fans. This would admittedly create an eerie atmosphere (like the game played in Baltimore during the Freddie Gray riots in 2015) and would be financially devastating for owners, but the safety of fans and workers is paramount to financial security for the richest people in this country. Having these fanless games would require cases of COVID-19 to drop significantly before, but would be able to unite the country in a time of crisis and boost MLB’s popularity in the United States.

The issue of COVID-19’s impact on baseball goes far beyond the league’s money-makers in the Major Leagues. Minor leaguers are dealt with

COVID-19 adds extra financial strain on minor leaguers. Photo via FanGraphs

extra financial insecurity in this time of crisis, a problem of income inequality that has existed in times of normalcy. For example, players on the Auburn Doubledays, the Nationals’ affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League, can make as little as $20 per game in their seven-week season. MLB owners promised to pay minor leaguers’ salaries through April 8th, but as baseball will not be played until at least May, MLB needs to step up their game and promise to pay their minor leaguers their salaries, as they do for their major league players. Stories of minor leaguers like Randy Dobnak, who spent his 2019 season playing in the minor leagues while also driving for Uber and Lyft before starting game 2 of the ALDS for the Minnesota Twins, will only be exacerbated. Of course, demand for rideshare services and other “gig jobs” have plummeted during the crisis, as unemployment has skyrocketed. It’s up to MLB and owners to pay their minor leaguers a fair amount to make sure they’re able to get by during this time of crisis.

This also applies to stadium workers. Many athletes, specifically basketball players, have promised to donate some money to keep them afloat. For instance, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans NBA team donated his money to cover the salaries of all arena employees for thirty days. While this selfless act helped employees of the Pelicans’ arena, it should not be up

Concession workers deserve to be paid during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo via Unite Here Local 23

to the players to donate millions of dollars to help employees. Gayle Benson, the owner of the Pelicans and New Orleans Saints NFL team, is worth $3.1 billion dollars. It’s safe to say that she has some spare change to help out her employees while New Orleans has been one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. The Nationals have donated $1 million to support these workers, but MLB should encourage and require all owners to pay their employees even though games are not taking place. To make matters worse, many employees of the team are contracted through Levy Restaurants (concession stands) and CSC Security (security officers). Neither of these companies have publicly announced that their workers would be compensated, as they receive their pay on a game-by-game basis. Both companies, along with all companies that contract workers to MLB games, should make sure that all employees are paid even in this time of uncertainty.

While it sucks that we aren’t celebrating our Nationals’ return to the diamond today, we should all be glad that MLB is not putting lives at risk by holding games amidst this pandemic. However, Major League Baseball must make sure that every cog in the wheel which makes a season spin is properly compensated while many jobs are at risk. This pandemic is bigger than baseball and bigger than the economy. It’s about the lives of people, and if every MLB employee isn’t properly compensated, then there will be many more people who will be unable to afford many basic requirements in a time like this.

How Will Coronavirus Impact the Game Day Experience for Young Fans?

Matt’s Bats is now available in spoken word “podcast” form, perfect for your commute to work! You can find me at anchor.fm/matts-bats or on Spotify, Breaker, Google Podcasts, and Radio Public. 

*****************************

One of the greatest joys of baseball is to see young fans meet their heroes. The anticipation for the players to come out of the dugout, all of the other kids holding out their pens and baseballs and hoping that by some mere chance you would come out with your favorite player’s signature on a baseball. 

Special moments between players and young fans may be at risk due to coronavirus. This is me meeting former National Zach Walters at Marlins Park in 2014.

Not too long ago, I was that fan. At my first ever baseball game, I got a baseball thrown to me by Jose Reyes of the Mets. I stood in those scrums of other kids to try and get the autographs of Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Yadier Molina, and Josh Donaldson, to name a few. Once, I got former Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis to sign a bat that outfielder Willie Harris had given me – I just wanted the memory of the autograph and the interaction with my favorite players.

But this year, these encounters may not occur. 

Over the last month, our lives have been consumed by the fear of a potential pandemic – the novel Wuhan coronavirus, or COVID-19. According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the coronavirus is incredibly contagious. According to the CDC, the virus spreads if an infected person is within a six foot radius of another person, or through droplets created when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The most dangerous part of the coronavirus is that some people do not show symptoms even if they are infected. 

This evidently causes a big problem for sports teams. Athletes aren’t just responsible for playing their sport – they are frequently in a locker room setting with many other people and are responsible for interacting with fans and creating special moments for children. If one player on the team is infected with coronavirus, the other members of the team are put at a very high risk of contracting the disease. In sports like basketball, hockey, and football, athletes are constantly making physical contact with each other at a higher rate than baseball. If a basketball player contracted the coronavirus, he wouldn’t just put his teammates at risk, but his opponents as well. 

Dr. Fran Cogen of the Washington Nationals Diabetes Care Center at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington shares these concerns in the sports world. Cogen firmly believes that the public should not have “immense fear, but immense knowledge.” She is worried that contact between fans and players could put the players at risk. Her recommendation is that teams and players should be setting examples for the public, like by “washing hands for twenty seconds when appropriate, avoid touching their faces, and avoid using fans’ Sharpies [when signing autographs].”

Some sports leagues in high-risk areas have taken these precautions to the extreme. In Japan, the NPB baseball league is playing the remainder of their preseason games in front of an empty audience. The NPB features many future and former MLB players, including, yes, former Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra. Similar measures were taken for the Italian Serie A soccer league. These precautionary procedures were reciprocated not far up the road in Baltimore, for the NCAA Division III basketball tournament at Johns Hopkins University. This came after a student and professor at one of the competing schools was diagnosed with coronavirus. 

The Nationals have begun to take measures to try and prevent their players from contracting coronavirus. A statement made Saturday morning

The Nationals are discouraging players autographing items for fans for fears of coronavirus. Me w/ Steve Lombardozzi in 2013.

read that the Nationals were no longer signing objects handed to them by fans – they would instead pass out autographed items before and during the game.  Their signature Sunday program will have players autograph cards or programs, like at previous NatsFests and other team events. 

Cogen doesn’t know whether or not the Nats and MLB should take precautions as serious as playing games in front of an empty audience. Although players themselves wouldn’t be at risk if that were the case, fans may. Cogen recommends that fans avoid “high fives, hugs and kisses” and “try to maintain appropriate space from one another,” which obviously can be difficult in a stadium for 40,000 people. She’s additionally concerned about food vendors, who if they are infected, could unknowingly transmit the virus to many people through their ballpark food. 

As a fan, I would be devastated if this unfortunate series of events were to take place. The last time I visited Spring Training, it was an opportunity for me to get up close and personal with the players. I had a great conversation with former Nats relief pitcher Ryan Mattheus, way back when, one year at Spring Training. Taking away that experience for new baseball fans may make it harder for kids to grow to love the game of baseball. And if this policy were to be enacted for the first few weeks of the regular season, the Nationals would miss out on some of the most exciting events to experience as World Series champions – a ring ceremony and a banner unveiling. I know that each and every single National wants to celebrate that special moment with the fans that stood by them through the ups and downs. While MLB should make sure that all fans and players are safe and healthy, it would be devastating if such were to happen this year because of coronavirus.

Remember to wash your hands and please, stay healthy.

******************

Thank you to Dr. Fran Cogen for helping me with this post!