Major League Baseball and its players union are showing interest in a plan that could allow the season to start in May at several stadiums in Arizona, ESPN reported Tuesday.
The idea, unnamed sources told the US sports network’s website, has the support of top federal public health officials who think all 30 clubs could operate safely despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The plan would have teams play at empty outdoor stadiums in the Phoenix area where several teams conduct pre-season spring training and Chase Field, the retractable-roof home stadium for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Players, managers and coaches, umpires and others would be sequestered at area hotels, living in relative isolation with travel only to and from the stadium, essentially in a bubble to be kept from the public.
“I think there would be an adjustment but we would follow suit,” retired MLB star and television commentator Alex Rodriguez told ESPN.
“Players want to play and fans want to watch.”
The MLB season of 162 games per club was to have opened on March 26.
MLB stars such as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout potentially would be forced to play an entire campaign away from families and friends while the Washington Nationals would try to defend their World Series crown in empty ballparks on the other side of the country.
“It’s a completely different experience,” Rodriguez said of empty stadiums.
“Communication as an infielder would be a lot better. I think it would be fine for television but on the field it would be like a spring training game.”
The report said officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health have shown support for a plan involving strict isolation and social distancing that could allow America’s national pastime to return from the deadly virus outbreak that has shut down most sports worldwide.
Two exceptions to the halt of sport have been low-level golf tours in Arizona, the men’s Outlaw Tour and women’s Cactus Tour.
“We just don’t know enough about this deadly disease,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody is concerned. The science tells us something different every day. The stock market is going up and down every day. That’s how everybody’s emotions are going.”
The report says some officials think June openers are more realistic, with May depending on many health issues being solved.
Prime among those concerns would be the need for a major increase in the availability of coronavirus tests with quick results that would not curtail testing access for the public as deaths and hospitalizations mount.
Ensuring safety for older participants such as managers and umpires as well as younger and fit players is another key factor, both from the virus and from the searing heat of an Arizona summer.
Players might spread out in empty grandstands instead of watch from more cramped dugout areas.
– Extreme Arizona heat –
Average daily high temperatures in the Phoenix area crack 100 degrees (37.7 Celsius) from June through September.
Teams would be looking at playing back-to-back games, possibly shortened to seven innings and with tie-breaker methods to ensure no marathon deadlocked contests.
“Back in the day it was something we did all the time,” Rodriguez said of double-headers. “We have to make sure we don’t put players in harm’s way.”
The move would allow players to keep receiving salaries and provide sport television for people shletering in homes while trying to limit the spread of the deadly disease.
While MLB would stand to lose ticket money, the lion’s share of its $10 billion annual revenues, the league and players could reap greater money from telecast rights.
The report said top federal health officials have spoken about the viability of such a plan with MLB and on Saturday with the MLB Players Association, with the union and MLB starting to discuss the idea Monday.
The plan would include teams carrying larger rosters to ease heat-related issues and allow for the possibility a player tests positive for coronavirus, but the report said officials do not believe such a test would necessarily cause a team to be quarantined or a shutdown to be reinstated.