Baseball Swings and Misses With 2020 ‘Season’ Plan

Embattled Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred shoulders the most blame for his sport's disastrous off-season.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions from baseball fans during an All-Star Game town hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 13, 2015.

By Tom Sileo Published on June 23, 2020

In February, the Commissioner of Baseball infamously referred to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal.” Four months later, Rob Manfred is proving that he meant it.

After months of public bickering appeared to end with no deal beyond a March 26 agreement between Major League Baseball and its players union, Manfred and MLB owners announced their intention to impose a severely shortened 2020 schedule. The planned regular “season” will reportedly be just 60 games – far less than half of a normal 162-game baseball schedule.

Imagine the NFL seeding its playoffs and handing out a Super Bowl trophy after a 6-game regular season. That’s what’s about to happen in baseball if coronavirus doesn’t ultimately derail the 2020 MLB season anyway.

Speaking of COVID-19, at least 40 MLB employees, including some players, have reportedly tested positive for the virus before the sport’s second 2020 “Spring” Training even starts. More positive tests were announced Tuesday by the Philadelphia Phillies.

The size of rosters, along with the travel and logistical work required to play and televise a professional baseball game – even if no fans are allowed to attend – makes the coronavirus a potential ticking time bomb for the sport.

Deciding how to handle the pandemic should have always been MLB’s focus. Instead, the commissioner, owners, players union and the media decided to fan the flames of a toxic battle over money, which badly damaged the sport’s image in the face of economic hardship, lockdowns, disease and civil unrest. While fans may be split on who’s to blame, nobody wanted to spend three months watching billionaires and millionaires fight over pro-rated salaries and revenue sharing. Most just wanted to watch baseball. From start to finish, the debate over how to achieve that goal should have been about safety.

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I am not a doctor and won’t pretend to know exactly how serious health risks will be for MLB players. What we do know, however, is that young players thought to be at lower risk won’t be the only ones required to show up at the ballpark each day. The presence of older coaches, umpires and clubhouse workers makes the COVID-19 threat even more complicated.

Another key angle – presciently discussed by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel back in April – is the impact trying to play could have on family members, especially those with pre-existing conditions.

To this lifelong fan, a 2020 MLB season isn’t worth it. My position wasn’t formulated by fear, but hope that America’s Pastime could avoid not only the aforementioned safety risks, but a public fight that would ultimately do more damage to the sport in the form of a future work stoppage. For fans, the last three months have been a roller coaster of false hope, frequent owner leaks and shoddy sports journalism. Throughout this debacle, numerous national baseball writers proved to be every bit as irresponsible and biased as some of their political media counterparts.

While some journalists, billionaire owners and millionaire players shoulder varying degrees of blame, what happened to baseball is ultimately a failure of leadership. After Manfred faced near-universal scorn for failing to adequately punish most members of the 2017 Houston Astros and strip away their tarnished title, the commissioner had an opportunity to guide baseball through the unique challenges posed by a pandemic. He failed in every imaginable way.

Had Manfred cancelled the season for safety reasons in April or May, most fans would have been disappointed, but ultimately understood. Had he pressed forward with a season while taking a conciliatory tone and extending olive branches to those facing the actual risks – players, coaches, umpires and workers – perhaps a longer, more meaningful season could have started sooner. Instead, Manfred spent three months sending wildly mixed messages to players and fans alike.

As Manfred dithered, precious time withered away. Manfred’s mix of indecisiveness and incompetence left baseball fans with the remnants of a season that’s simply too short to matter.

After 60 games, the reigning World Series Champion Washington Nationals wouldn’t have just missed the 2019 postseason; they wouldn’t have even finished with a winning record. Baseball seasons have always been marathons designed to prevent undeserving teams from reaching the playoffs. Even the strike-shortened 1981 and 1995 seasons each lasted more than 100 games and produced champions that are universally viewed as legitimate.

After massive steroid and cheating scandals, the last thing baseball needed was more asterisks. Thanks to three months of arguing and stalling, that’s exactly what could be in store. In fact, there are reportedly more pages in MLB’s proposed safety protocol handbook than regular season games being played by each team.

I don’t blame any fan who decides to watch and enjoy Major League Baseball in 2020. Baseball is a beautiful game that I’ve loved since I was a little boy. Fans did nothing to deserve a disastrous off-season that produced the shortest schedule in modern MLB history and bad blood between owners and players that will last much longer.

Whichever team wins this year’s “World Series” also did nothing to deserve its inevitable asterisk. I only hope and pray that players, coaches, umpires, workers and their families don’t pay a much bigger price than the credibility the upcoming season has already lost.

At the end of the classic 1983 film WarGames, the supercomputer reaches a crucial conclusion about nuclear war: “the only winning move is not to play.” Considering where his sport’s disastrous 2019-20 off-season started and finished, perhaps baseball commissioner Rob Manfred should have heeded that advice.

 

Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is co-author of 8 Seconds of CourageBrothers ForeverFire in My Eyes and the forthcoming Three Wise Men. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.

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