On Wednesday, the dominoes began falling across the landscape of US sports with respect to the spread of the novel coronavirus. A day that included the World Health Organization officially declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and a top U.S. health official telling a Congressional committee, “Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” saw leagues and organizations take unprecedented steps in order to comply with governmental restrictions on large gatherings. Such social distancing measures have been proven to slow the spread of a virus — to “flatten the curve” in order to avoid overwhelming health care systems and force grim decisions on triage — that has shown a 33% daily rise in the cumulative number of cases, and that may ultimately infect 70 million to 150 million people in the U.S. alone, one for which a vaccine is at least a year away.
Where on Tuesday Major League Baseball’s closure of locker rooms and clubhouses went into effect, by late Wednesday that measure and the concerns that surrounded it looked like small potatoes compared to the NCAA’s announcement that its signature basketball tournament would proceed without spectators, and the NBA’s indefinite suspension of its season following a player testing positive for the virus. While MLB began addressing its most acute situations in Seattle and San Francisco on Wednesday due to decisions made by local authorities, it’s now quite apparent that the league will soon need to move beyond piecemeal solutions and be forced to make a choice between delaying its March 26 Opening Day or playing games behind closed doors. Reporters such as ESPN’s Jeff Passan and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman have suggested that spring training could soon be suspended.
As noted previously, such measures are hardly the biggest sacrifice to be made at a time when schools and other institutions are being closed and people are becoming sick or even dying amid an epidemic whose worldwide confirmed case count is upwards of 127,000 as of Wednesday, and whose death toll is approaching 5,000.
At a Wednesday hearing on the country’s preparedness for the outbreak, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee, “I can say we will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now.” Via CNBC:
Fauci said COVID-19 is at least 10 times “more lethal” than the seasonal flu, even if the mortality rate drops far below the World Health Organization’s current estimate of 3.4%.
…When pressed by lawmakers for an estimate of eventual fatalities in the U.S., Fauci said it will be “totally dependent upon how we respond to it.”
“I can’t give you a number,” he said. “I can’t give you a realistic number until we put into the factor of how we respond. If we’re complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions.”
Dr. Fauci’s recommendations took aim at the world of sports as one means of mitigation. Via the Washington Post:
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Fauci said. “If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would [cause] a risk to spread.”
By the time Dr. Fauci said that, measures along those lines were already being taken by various leagues and organizations, and throughout the day, the hits to any notion that the games could proceed as usual kept coming.
Shortly after the publication of my previous piece on MLB’s response to the outbreak, the Seattle Times reported the intention of Washington governor Jay Inslee to announce plans to restrict gatherings of more than 250 people, a move aimed at sporting events, concerts, and other cultural events. Inslee officially put the prohibition into effect through at least the end of the month on Wednesday afternoon. With that move, the pandemic — a term that means sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world, triggering more aggressive actions to address the situation — crossed into MLB’s regular season. The Mariners were scheduled to open the season by hosting the Rangers (March 26-29) and Twins (March 30-31) at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, but those games will now have to be canceled or relocated. On Tuesday night, The Athletic’s Evan Drelich reported that the Mariners could temporarily play their regular season home games at their Peoria, Arizona spring training facility, though no plans have been finalized.
Via Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard, which is based on data from the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control, and other resources, the state of Washington has the highest total of confirmed cases (373) and deaths (30) of any in the US as of 10 AM ET on March 12. New York is second with 216 confirmed cases, and California third with 179. The confirmed case totals in Florida and Arizona, the two states where MLB’s teams are currently amid spring training, are far behind, with 29 and nine, respectively, but all of those numbers will grow exponentially in the coming days and weeks as more people show symptoms and are tested. The total number of confirmed cases in the US is now up to 1,323, with 38 deaths.
Also on Wednesday, San Francisco mayor London Breed issued a ban on mass gatherings of more than 1,000 people for at least the next two weeks. As a result, the March 24 exhibition game between the A’s and Giants at Oracle Park, the second game of the home-and-home Bay Bridge Series, was canceled. “We are in the process of working with Major League Baseball and the A’s to finalize alternative arrangements,” said the Giants in a statement. The fate of the March 23 game between the two teams at the Oakland Coliseum has yet to be decided, but it would hardly be a surprise if it is scrubbed, too.
Elsewhere in San Francisco, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors planned to play Thursday night’s game against the the Brooklyn Nets at Chase Center without fans, making it the first empty-arena game in US pro sports as a result of the virus. However, on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed less than an hour before tipoff when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, that after testing negative for the flu, strep throat, and an upper respiratory infection. Players from both teams were quarantined, while players from the five teams the Jazz have played within the past 10 days were told to self-quarantine. Footage of Gobert cavalierly touching every microphone following a Monday media session soon surfaced. On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Jazz star Donovan Mitchell has tested positive as well, and that Gobert “had been careless in the locker room touching other players and their belongings.” Yes, really.
Just a couple hours after the Jazz-Thunder postponement, the NBA announced that it is “is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice.” Most NBA teams have 15 to 20 games remaining in their regular season, which was scheduled to end on April 15. “The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA announced that it would play its men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments without spectators. That move came after Ohio governor Mike DeWine banned spectators at major indoor sporting events, a prohibition that would include tournament games at sites in Dayton (the location for the First Four, which kicks off the tournament on March 17) and Cleveland. The NCAA said some relatives of participants would be allowed to attend the games, and that it is looking to move the men’s Final Four from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena. In the wake of the tournament announcement, several conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, AAC, Pac-12 and SEC — announced similar plans to proceed without spectators.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, the Ivy League announced that all spring athletics, including baseball, have been canceled. The league’s basketball tournaments fell by the wayside on Tuesday, with its regular season champions awarded the berths to the NCAA tournament. Additionally, dozens of college baseball programs announced cancellations and changes in attendance policies, with the SEC cancelling all games until March 30. On Thursday, Major League Soccer suspended its season as well; the National Hockey League will reportedly do so also.
In light of these changes and the emphasis on social distancing measures, it’s clear that with two weeks to go before Opening Day, MLB’s choices have been winnowed to either delaying the start of the season on a league-wide basis, playing to empty stadiums either at home or at alternative facilities, or some combination of those two remedies. More pressingly, there’s now a question of whether spring training games should even continue to be open to the public:
There is a feeling of inevitability among executives that Major League Baseball will be suspending spring training as soon as today, sources tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 12, 2020
Whatever route MLB chooses, it faces an unenviable set of logistical nightmares. If the season is delayed and players are shut down, they will need time to ramp their activity levels back up (think pitchers building up their pitch counts). If the season proceeds behind closed doors, the risk of a player testing positive for the virus, which would require his teammates and perhaps opponents to be quarantined, could force the games to halt, just as the NBA has done.
Via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:
“I would bet we delay start of season and bunker down in our spring training complexes,” one executive said. “We would put (the players) on light workloads with the thought that we announce start of the delayed season and give two to three weeks to ramp back up.”
It would be difficult, however, for teams to determine how they would handle a delay without knowing how long it would be. It also would be difficult for baseball to announce a firm start date without knowing what impact the virus might have over the next few weeks.
“I don’t know what kind of parameters we’re going to have,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I don’t know if they will keep us together or we will be allowed to go our separate ways. I don’t know if we’ll be quarantined. I don’t know.”
Whatever happens, MLB faces a significant financial hit, one that will put hourly employees in stadiums out of work and have a ripple effect on the hospitality industry. Playing games behind closed doors would wipe out ticket revenues, but would at least allow the fulfillment of television contracts, and provide some measure of entertainment for viewers who themselves are increasingly being encouraged or mandated to stay home — a reminder of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Green Light Letter,” issued just five weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, encouraging baseball to proceed with the 1942 season: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”
Shortening the season wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1918, MLB ended its regular season on September 2 due to World War I, with teams having played anywhere between 123 and 131 games from a 154-game schedule; the World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs began on September 5. The following season, infamous for its fixed World Series between the White Sox and Reds, was played amid an influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and between 50 million and 100 million worldwide; schedules were trimmed to around 140 games.
Meanwhile, labor stoppages delayed the starts of the 1972 and ’95 seasons, interrupted the ’81 season, and brought the ’94 season to a screeching halt in August, with the World Series subsequently canceled. For the league, time is tight for planning, but ideally baseball can avoid what happened in 1972, when a 13-day strike wiped out 86 games, none of which were rescheduled. The result was that an unequal number of games played by the Tigers (86-70) and Red Sox (85-70) helped to decide the AL East race. By comparison, teams uniformly played 144-game schedules in 1995, when the opening of the season was delayed by owners locking out players.
Already, measures are being taken within the industry. Sources told FanGraphs that several teams in both Arizona and Florida (at least the Angels, Athletics, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Twins) have imposed travel restrictions on scouts, prohibiting them from flying, with every team is discussing such measures of some form or another. Travel by car is still permissible for some of these organizations, though some teams are encouraging scouts to limit the distance driven from home in case of widespread travel restrictions. If they haven’t been already, similar restrictions may be imposed by media outlets, with travel restricted to ground instead of air.
As with yesterday’s dispatch on the topic of baseball and the coronavirus, the situation is extremely fluid, and things can change quickly. But right now, it’s virtually impossible to see how MLB can escape the conclusion that the rest of the US sports world has reached, that right now there’s simply no way for the games to proceed without major alterations in plans. It could be awhile before any of us gets to hear the clarion call of Opening Day, “Play ball!”