The combination of Major League Baseball’s hostile labor battle with its players’ union and a surge in coronavirus cases in Florida and elsewhere left the game with dwindling options to stage a 2020 season.
The owners rejected the union’s proposal for a 70-game schedule and said they wouldn’t offer a counter proposal. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred could now look to impose a season of a length of his choosing, likely in the neighborhood of 50 games, with players receiving full prorated pay. Management offered 60 games earlier this week, putting the two sides about $300 million apart.
But Covid-19 has turned into a huge new obstacle to any plan. An emergence of cases originating at team training facilities in Florida and Arizona cast further doubts about whether baseball can safely play, even if the parties somehow settled their financial differences.
Eleven players on 40-man rosters from seven teams have tested positive for Covid-19 since June 5, a person familiar with the matter said.It could force the league to revisit a long-abandoned “bubble plan” which would require sequestering players, coaches and staff in one central location and playing all games there, with frequent testing and monitoring of players’ health.
The sudden influx of cases threw an unwelcome curveball at the game’s already fraught and uncertain attempt to return to the field. The NBA needed months to work out the details of its planned restart in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., which is slated to begin in late July and will be governed by 113 pages of health and safety protocols.
Florida, home to two MLB teams and many training sites, has become a particular focus of the new rise in cases. On Friday, the Philadelphia Phillies announced they had shut down their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla., after eight people—five players and three staff members—tested positive for Covid-19, all since Tuesday. Thirty-two other people with the team were still awaiting the results of coronavirus tests as of Friday afternoon, the team said.
“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on the Phillies’ 2020 season, the club declines comment, believing that it is too early to know,” the Phillies said in a statement.
The Toronto Blue Jays closed down their facility in nearby Dunedin after a player there exhibited symptoms consistent with Covid-19.
This person familiar with baseball’s thinking said that MLB could look at Southern California as a potential site. The region has three MLB stadiums—Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Angel Stadium in Anaheim and Petco Park in San Diego—as well as several colleges with quality ballparks. It’s still unclear whether the “bubble” plan will become serious enough for the league to broach with the union.
The NBA, the WNBA and MLS are planning to use that format when they return to play in Florida, a state that has emerged as one of the country’s newest hot spots. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently that he believed the NFL would need to set up a bubble in order to play in 2020 as well.
MLB considered the possibility of playing an entire season in the Phoenix area months ago. Other possibilities included setting up “regions” in Arizona, Florida and Texas. But that idea was quickly scrapped for a variety of reasons, including the summertime weather in Arizona and a negative response from the players, who were hesitant about quarantining away from their families for so long.
Instead, baseball moved toward playing in as many home cities as possible in empty stadiums, with teams only facing opponents in their geographic regions to limit travel. Last month, the league sent to the union a 67-page manual outlining the health and safety protocols that would be necessary to play under those conditions. They involved strict restrictions on player movement on the road, overhauling areas like the bullpen and dugout and other measures to promote social distancing, as well as coronavirus testing multiple times per week. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said recently that the league and players were “very, very close” on reaching an agreement in this area.
But the plans haven’t progressed because the two sides are locked in a bitter labor standoff over the economics of playing games without fans in attendance. The owners and players have traded proposals in recent days, but they remain hundreds of millions of dollars apart. Both proposals involved players reporting as soon as next week to spring training, either in their home cities or at their typical sites in Florida and Arizona—two states where the coronavirus is spiking.
The Covid hot spot in central Florida also could prove to be troublesome to the NBA’s plans.
The virus now appears to be more prevalent there than it has been since the early days of the pandemic. The number of cases in Orange County, the home of the league’s planned Disney World campus, surged more than 650% over the last two weeks, an explosion of infections that prompted the county’s mayor to mandate face coverings in public starting on Saturday.
The growth in cases is not simply a reflection of a testing increase. Two weeks ago, the positivity rate in Orange County hovered around 2%. It was 11.9% on Tuesday and 10% on Wednesday before skyrocketing to 15.1% on Thursday, according to data from the Florida health department.
There was no county in the state that tested as many people Thursday and returned a positivity rate as high as Orange’s.
NBA teams aren’t scheduled to arrive in central Florida before July 7, but they will be tested at least every other day in their home markets starting next week. They’re also required to undergo antibody testing to learn which players and essential staffers might have already been infected.
There are few people who will be tested as frequently over the next few months as NBA players. By the time they move into their Disney World hotels, the people in the 22 traveling parties will have been tested for more than two weeks. They will still enter isolation once they arrive on campus, and only when they register two negative tests will they be cleared from quarantine. They will continue to be tested regularly until the season ends in October.
These health and safety measures in place for the NBA’s restart on July 30 were outlined in a voluminous document sent to teams this week. The entire point of the bubble is to keep the virus out—but the virus may sneak in anyway.
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