How will the reopening of baseball unfold?

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On Monday, former major leaguer Trevor Plouffe tweeted that he had heard spring training would resume on June 10 and that games would get underway on July 1. Plouffe, who retired after the 2018 season, isn’t far removed from the game and no doubt has a lot of contacts in baseball, but no one confirmed his rumor and many pushed back, claiming that it wasn’t true.

This morning — in what you should 100% construe as Major League Baseball’s unofficial pushback on that rumor — Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that “no plan is close to firm” as far as when the 2020 baseball season will begin or what it will look like.” He added that “there is no plan, can be no plan, until Major League Baseball gains a clearer perspective on which states are containing COVID-19 well enough for games to be played safely in their most stripped-down form, without fans.” Jeff Passan of ESPN — similarly plugged-in to MLB’s leadership — said almost exactly the same thing.

When Passan and Rosenthal are on the same page like this it’s a pretty good bet that you’re hearing a message that Major League Baseball’s leadership is strongly endeavoring to convey. In this case the message is “we have no idea when or how baseball is returning, but when we do decide, be assured that it’ll be based on science and reason and safety.”

Which is the right message to convey. I just wonder, though, if that’s what’s really going on, technically speaking.

Yesterday I wrote about how there is a clear incentive on the part of some pretty powerful people to bring back baseball by early July as a point of symbolism and inspiration. I don’t know if Plouffe is full of it or not, but that jibes with what he says he’s heard. It also jibes with something both Rosenthal and Passan confirmed in their reports: that teams — each cited the Cleveland Indians — have been told to be ready to go back to spring training in mid-to-late June, with an eye toward an early July season start. Each quickly followed that note with words to the effect of, “but, again, there is no actual plan in place . . .” but that they confirmed the notion that such signaling is already taking place makes me further believe that MLB is clearly eyeing that early July start.

Which makes me think that, rather than watching the data about “which states are containing COVID-19 well enough for games to be played safely,” what’s really going on is that they’ve decided when they want to play — early July — and are looking out for information that would prevent them from making that decision official.

That’s a fine distinction — some may argue it’s a distinction without a difference — but it makes a pretty big difference in practice. It transforms the decision making process from one of data collection and determination (query: what specific information from which states will Rob Manfred cite as his tipping point?) to one that is at least partially grounded in optics.

Here’s what I think is happening, practically speaking.

Major League Baseball has most of the month of May to see if the aggressive re-opening plans of various states or businesses blows up in their faces. To see if there is serious public backlash to it. To see if there are moments of bad optics. To see if famous people — especially athletes or people close to athletes (remember, it was an NBA player getting sick that set all of this off) — get sick or die. To see if vocal re-opening advocates catch hell or are politically embarrassed. To see if there is public unrest of some kind. To see if the increased infection and death rate that the Trump administration is itself predicting captures more of the public’s attention than the reopenings, complete with cable news b-roll of healthy people enjoying lunch at outdoor cafes, do. To gauge the mood just as much if not more than to see how well COVID-19 was, technically speaking, being “contained.”

If, as is so often the case in this country, people start to become fatigued by the bad news and allow it to fall down the page, as it were — if there are stories about how the country is slowly-but-surely returning to normal — an unofficial early July start date will play well with most people and that “be ready for spring training in June” stuff Rosenthal and Passan mentioned will, miraculously, prove to have been prescient. If, on the other hand, the national mood does not follow that course — if some of that bad stuff I talked about in the previous paragraph comes to pass — hey, “nothing official has been decided” so MLB can just put things off.

Either way, I do not truly believe that baseball will begin again because — as measured by hard numbers or specific guidance from public health officials — June is going to be objectively safer than May or because July will be objectively safer than June. If that were the case, again, Rob Manfred could, like governors of the various states, talk publicly about the metrics and scientific and medical considerations which are guiding his reasoning.

Rather, I believe baseball has a pretty darkly-penciled-in sketch of a plan at the moment which involves a mid-June spring training followed by an early July opening as the baseline and which will only be changed if it becomes untenable to hold to it due to the optics of the plan.