Multiple reports have just emerged that Major League Baseball is expected to take the inevitable step today of announcing the suspension of spring training and, possibly, announcing a delay to the start of the 2020 regular season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A conference call with MLB officials and all 30 teams is taking place shortly. MLB is expected to make an announcement afterward about the status of spring training and the opening of the season.
The move, which could come as soon as early this afternoon, comes after the NBA, NHL, and Major League Soccer all suspended their in-progress seasons and after multiple major college basketball conferences canceled their conference tournaments. It also comes in the wake of multiple mayors and governors either recommending the cancelation of public gatherings or issuing outright bans on them, including professional sporting events. So far the state of Washington and the city of San Francisco have banned such events. California and Ohio have made recommendations. No doubt many more such cancellations or recommendations will follow.
In light of all of that the only surprise in Major League Baseball making such an announcement is that it has taken as long as it has. Indeed, given that there have already been dozens of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida, and given that spring training crowds in both Florida and Arizona consist largely of out-of-state visitors, the fact that games have continued as long as they have is somewhat shocking.
Before this announcement, Major League Baseball had initially instituted measures to protect players, including the banning of the press from clubhouses and prohibiting players from shaking hands with fans or signing autographs. Those measures came under fire, however, as insufficient and as failing to take the health of fans and stadium workers into account. In the past 24-48 hours Major League Baseball was reportedly exploring plans to relocate games to cities which are so far unaffected by the COVID-19 outbreak, but that plan did not seem tenable. Untenable given the size of the outbreak and the uncertainty that exists about its spread and progression even by experts. The fact that a lawyer who runs a sports league and his advisors were considering trying to make predictions and prudent decisions against that backdrop was, frankly, absurd.
As of yesterday there are more than 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and there have been more than 4,600 deaths. Those numbers are considered by experts to be a mere fraction of actual cases and deaths given that testing for COVID-19 — especially in the United States — has not even scratched the surface of what is deemed necessary or adequate. Earlier this week Congress’ in-house doctor told Capitol Hill staffers at a close-door meeting that he expects 70-150 million people in the U.S. — roughly a third of the country — to contract the coronavirus. Which, given even conservative estimates of the fatality rate, could mean millions dead in this country alone. The World Health Organization has declared coronavirus a global pandemic.
Where the 2020 Major League Baseball season goes from here is hard to say. Will it just be spring training? Will the start of the regular season be postponed as well? That is not yet known. We do have at least a rough precursor to a suspended start of a season: 1995.
Obviously that was not a season affected by a world-wide pandemic, but it was a season that started late and was truncated. In that case it was the 1994-95 strike, which did not officially end until April 2, at which point the league and the union agreed to play a 144-game season that began on April 26. Again, that was a totally different situation with the lack of unknowns we have now, but it did show that the season can resume on short notice and proceed in an orderly fashion if need be.
Clearly this is a fluid situation and the resumption of the 2020 season is beyond the control of just those in charge of Major League Baseball. And clearly there will be more to come, much of which is unexpected.