MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S plan to start the season by July 4 relies on a dizzying array of moving parts, including the cooperation of 27 U.S. cities and a foreign country, the availability of more than 200,000 reliable coronavirus tests and a promise not to interfere with the nationwide fight to contain the pandemic.
ESPN examined the challenges facing MLB as it struggles to get back on the field. What emerges is like nothing that has been attempted in the history of American sport, less a baseball season than a military-style operation in which any number of variables could derail the plan, or, worse, contribute to the spread of the deadly disease.
“What’s at stake here is a human life,” said Andy Dolich, a Bay Area consultant who has worked as a senior executive for teams in every major sport, including the Oakland A’s. “That might sound overdramatic, but it doesn’t sound overdramatic to me. All the people involved, that’s a person, with a name, who has a family.”
This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Greg Amante, Art Berko, Steve Fainaru, Mark Fainaru-Wada, Michael Fletcher, Pedro Gomez, Paula Lavigne, Tonya Malinowski, John Mastroberardino, Jeff Passan, Jesse Rogers, Tisha Thompson, T.J. Quinn, William Weinbaum and Tracy Wholf.
Through interviews, public and private documents, email exchanges and text messages with more than 80 players, managers, athletic trainers, sports executives, public health officials, infectious disease experts and government officials, ESPN found:
Baseball’s plan, which calls for “frequent” — but not daily — testing, quarantines only individuals who test positive, increasing the risk of spread and contravening federal guidelines that advise individuals who come in contact with a confirmed infection to quarantine for at least two weeks.
Unless protective equipment and diagnostic testing become more prevalent in the coming weeks, MLB will be competing with medical providers for essential resources in some states. MLB vows it will not to siphon resources from the public.
As MLB’s plans took shape, health officials for big league cities were not consulted, leaving out critical decision-makers the league is counting on to execute the plan, including some empowered to shut down the sport in their communities during an emergency. Baseball says it will do so when the plan is complete.
Across America, businesses, governments, schools, houses of worship — and a few sports leagues — are slowly working their way toward reopening, even as deaths from the coronavirus approach 100,000. As these institutions move forward, they are employing a hodgepodge of approaches that range from conservative to aggressive.
With MLB losing roughly $75 million a day, according to estimates by Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, officials are contemplating a half-season plus expanded playoffs — well over 1,200 games across the nation. Baseball will be engaged in a daily battle against the virus — disinfecting baseballs, deep-cleaning clubhouses and, at least initially, banning paying customers from the ballpark.
MLB will need help from state and local health officials to address ongoing concerns in most major league cities. Currently, all but six restrict gatherings to 10 people; 11 have banned gatherings altogether. Sixteen of the league’s 30 teams are still under various shelter-in-place orders. Last week, the health director for Los Angeles County — a California hot spot and the home of the Dodgers — said restrictions will remain in place for three more months. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signaled their support this week for pro sports to return soon in those states.
Dan Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner for baseball administration and the chief legal officer, told ESPN that the league’s plan is a “first draft” and that MLB will reach out to local authorities once the plan is in place, possibly as soon as the end of this week. “We’re going to be guided by public health authorities,” he said. “We’re ultimately subject, and rightfully so, to the individuals in each community that are responsible for public health.”
Baseball has the support of the Trump administration, which has privately exhorted the players to serve as “the pied piper” to “bring the country back,” a union source told ESPN. But guidance from the White House on the return of sports has been “confusing” and, at times, in conflict with the advice of public health experts, according to multiple sports executives who participated in conversations with the White House.
On separate occasions in late March, representatives of sports unions, including the Major League Baseball Players Association, were told by administration officials that the threat of the virus was exaggerated and testing “was not the end-all, be-all,” as one union official put it, contradicting the advice of the White House’s own task force.
“We’re having to work to separate fact from fiction to make sure our guys are protected. It’s a very delicate dance,” a union source said.
The yearning to see baseball return this summer seems nearly universal among players, fans and public officials. “If baseball is a big part of the healing of our country, the normalizing of our daily routines, as an American and as a baseball fan I think it’s important that we get back sooner than later so we can contribute and do our part,” Red Sox catcher Jonathan Lucroy told ESPN.
Baseball’s return would mean more than a resumption of routine. For some, it would symbolize a triumph over a pandemic that has sidelined every aspect of society, similar to the swell of unity and pride after President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, signaling it was time for the nation to forge ahead after the 9/11 attacks.
More than sports like the PGA and UFC, which are organizing individual events, or even the NBA and the NHL, which have completed most of their regular seasons, MLB’s complicated experiment would be an emotional litmus test of the nation’s ability to regain control over normalcy. And, if it fails, it could deal an equally crushing blow.
“If we get the plan going and everyone does what it takes to get this to work, and then it just infects the system, it might induce a panic throughout the country,” said pitcher Brent Suter, the Milwaukee Brewers’ player representative. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, they couldn’t even do it with all of these precautions.’ That’s a fear of mine, for sure.”
One former team president wondered whether it’s worth it. “It’s in no one’s interest to play this year except the game of baseball,” he told ESPN. League officials are moving forward only because “the long-term health of the game is at stake here.”
In recent weeks, as the plan took shape, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred lobbied governors and other officials in many of the places baseball is played.
“A lot of the things that people do for fun, they certainly have not been able to do for a couple of months,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who is part owner of a minor league team, said in an interview with ESPN. “Bringing baseball back in summer would be something that for a lot of people is a big deal. So we would hope that would take place.”
But, in some states, including California, home to five teams, local health officials are empowered to sanction or prohibit large gatherings.
Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, which includes Houston, said he would be “more than happy” to talk with Major League Baseball about having games there. But, he said, no one has called to discuss any potential plans.
“Responding to COVID-19 is a team sport,” Shah said. “The issue that we have, unfortunately, is that as far as I know, they’re not necessarily working with the local public health officials.”
As ESPN reported last week, Halem said MLB is prepared to move teams to locations that have been reopened if state or local governments prohibit them from playing in their own cities. Although details of MLB’s plan are still developing, the linchpin is diagnostic testing to ensure that thousands of people — players, staff and other personnel — remain uninfected.
The Harvard Global Health Institute recommends states conduct at least 152 tests per day for every 100,000 people. But only four out of the 17 states with MLB teams currently meet that standard, based on a seven-day average of testing results compiled by the COVID Tracking Project. How MLB avoids competing for desperately needed resources is shaping up as one of its biggest challenges.
Halem acknowledged that some labs are still unable to analyze tests on the scale that’s needed. But he said baseball solved that problem by working with a Salt Lake City lab so that MLB can administer and analyze its own coronavirus tests without interfering with public health needs.
“We made the decision we were going to stay out of that world to not take tests away from the public,” Halem said. He added that private companies assured MLB that it also will not be in competition with the health care system for much-needed personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
But Dr. Val Griffeth, an Oregon emergency medicine and critical-care specialist who co-founded an organization that fills shortages of personal protective equipment for medical providers, disagreed: “Every resource being used by Major League Baseball will be a resource not being used by a health care service somewhere. Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live in.”
In March, an MLB trial balloon to play inside a protective bubble at spring training sites deflated, in part because of the players’ reluctance to be isolated for an extended period and limited broadcasting capacity. But the latest plan — with players and other personnel free to circulate in their communities as state rules permit — is a riskier, less certain strategy, according to health experts interviewed by ESPN. One sports executive gave MLB a 75% chance of completing the season.
If it happens, this promises to be a baseball season like no other.
BASEBALL HAS PLAYED through one pandemic — the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which killed roughly 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide.
Babe Ruth fell ill in the spring of 1918 with what likely was the same strain of the flu, and another Hall of Famer, White Sox pitcher Red Faber, missed the 1919 World Series because of lasting effects of the illness. One player, outfielder Larry Chappell, died, along with several prominent sportswriters, umpires and others surrounding the sport.
The flu coincided with World War I, and owners, fearing the conflict would curtail the season, tried to pack ballparks “in as short of a time as possible because they didn’t know how many games they’d be allowed to play,” said Jacob Pomrenke, director of editorial content with the Society for American Baseball Research.
Players “had no say,” Pomrenke said. “If they were told to return to the field, even in a public health crisis, that was it.”
A century later, the tables have turned, thanks largely to the powerful MLBPA, which was founded in 1966. Last week, instead of unilaterally ordering players back onto the field, the owners were forced to negotiate their return. Players already had agreed to prorated salaries based on how many games they play this season, but owners are proposing a revenue-sharing deal — effectively a further pay cut — because, they say, costs will vastly exceed revenue without fans.
Baseball derived more than $4.2 billion last year from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and other items and relies on fan spending for 40% of its revenue, far more than any other major sport.
“In the event of a season, Players will be taking on additional medical risk, and the idea that you would accept that risk AND reduce your compensation further simply doesn’t make sense,” one player representative wrote in a text message to his team recently.
Baseball will not resume without an agreement between the owners and players.
All 16 players interviewed by ESPN for this story expressed a strong desire to play this year — to provide entertainment during the crisis, to play the sport they love, to support their families.
“At the end of the day, frenemies, enemies, friends — whatever you want to call the relationship between players and MLB — I think we both want the same thing, to play baseball,” Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood said. “It will be a good thing for our country and good thing for the fans, and it’ll be a great opportunity to really showcase our sport on a worldwide stage.”
The players said their priority was health and safety, but what that meant varied according to circumstances, personal and economic.
Angels second baseman Tommy La Stella said he wants to make sure baseball “is smart about it and not pushing to get back on the field to make money at the expense of our safety. … It’s not the corporate heads who are in compromised positions, it’s going to be the producers.”
The Angels’ Mike Trout, the highest-paid player in the game, is expecting his first child with his wife, Jessica, in early August. “My wife is my biggest concern,” he told ESPN. “With the season and stuff, we’ll just play it by ear. Obviously, you don’t know what it entails yet, but we’ll go down that road when that happens. But it’s a scary, scary time for my wife.”
Baseball’s plan says “to the extent possible, personnel must avoid off-site medical appointments at hospitals or clinics that treat COVID-19 patients.” Trout said he is planning to be present at the birth.
“I’ll be there: I’m not missing the birth of my first child,” he said. “I know that.”
The average age of a major leaguer last year was 28; pro athletes are at extremely low-risk for the virus but “are the demographic most likely to be asymptomatic” carriers, said Will Humble, the former health director for the state of Arizona. Nationals ace Max Scherzer, 35, told ESPN he’s most concerned about the vulnerability of coaches and athletic trainers. “They’re constantly working with every single player on the team, and understanding how infectious this disease is, that’s where you worry that you could be putting somebody in harm’s way,” he said.
COVID-19 Cases in Baseball Jurisdictions
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Maricopa County||161|
|Atlanta Braves||Cobb County||317|
|Baltimore Orioles||City of Baltimore||630|
|Boston Red Sox||Suffolk County||2,050|
|Chicago Cubs/White Sox||Cook County||1,208|
|Cincinnati Reds||Hamilton County||250|
|Cleveland Indians||Cuyahoga County||269|
|Colorado Rockies||Denver County||640|
|Detroit Tigers||Wayne County||1,090|
|Houston Astros||Harris County||194|
|Kansas City Royals||Jackson County||191|
|Los Angeles Angels||Orange County||138|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Los Angeles County||378|
|Miami Marlins||Miami-Dade County||576|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Milwaukee County||523|
|Minnesota Twins||Hennepin County||407|
|New York Mets||Queens County||2,624|
|New York Yankees||Bronx County||3,034|
|Oakland Athletics||Alameda County||143|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Philadelphia County||1,019|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Allegheny County||132|
|San Diego Padres||San Diego County||175|
|San Francisco Giants||San Francisco County||233|
|Seattle Mariners||King County||332|
|St. Louis Cardinals||City of St. Louis||523|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pinellas County||105|
|Texas Rangers||Tarrant County||207|
|Washington Nationals||District of Columbia||1,009|
Cases per 100,000 people uses Census Bureau population data as of July 1, 2019, and confirmed
Eight umpires and seven managers are over 60, including new Astros manager Dusty Baker, who, at 70, is baseball’s oldest manager. As of this week, umpires had not been given a set of proposed safety protocols for them, according to a source close to the umps.
Some players are more vulnerable because of preexisting conditions that might weaken their immune systems. Carlos Carrasco, the Indians’ 33-year-old starter, was diagnosed with leukemia last year. He takes medication twice a day. He previously had heart surgery. In an interview, Carrasco said his doctor has told him that he’s at a higher risk and advised him to “stay home.” But Carrasco and his wife have five children and he’s preparing for the season, so he ventures out of their house in Tarpon Springs, Florida, to train and grocery shop wearing a mask and a hoodie.
“I just want to be a good dad, and I want to take care of my family,” he said. “I have to do it. I know some people told me, ‘You have to take care of yourself because you have these [things].’ But at the same time, I’m a father, a son, a friend, a brother. So I have to do everything for my family.”
The Athletic recently reported that baseball has at least three players with Type 1 diabetes: Dodgers reliever Scott Alexander, Braves outfielder Adam Duvall and Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks. Like Carrasco, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has had heart surgery, and Rockies outfielder David Dahl had his spleen removed five years ago.
Players said they are prepared to take extra precautions to make sure everyone around the sport is safe.
“We’re willing to jump through some hoops to make sure that we are safe and that the league can exist,” Scherzer said.
WHEN MLB ABANDONED the idea to play the season under a bubble-like quarantine, it eased the restrictions that players would face but also created a riskier and more complicated scenario, according to health experts.
Even if teams are limited to regions — reducing travel, as the plan anticipates — players and other personnel will still travel between cities where people are living under different health orders and the virus may be spreading at different rates. Some states have reopened more than others and are projected to see a spike in cases, while others remain all but closed. Georgia, for example, partially ended its stay-at-home order on April 24, lifting restrictions on gyms, bowling alleys, hair salons and other businesses. In Cobb County, where the Braves play, new cases have been averaging about 50 a day. Some models and experts predict Georgia will soon see an increase in deaths because of the reopening.
“I wouldn’t want to put players in Atlanta’s ballpark,” said Beth Blauer, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civic Impact, which specializes in the use of data to advise governments and nonprofits on best practices. “You have to determine where to play based on that modeling. You can’t bring players into hot spots. … You’ll know between mid-May and June how devastating the decisions are and where the new hot spots are, potentially.”
Alex Fairly, CEO of Fairly Group, an Amarillo, Texas-based risk management firm whose clients include MLB and the NFL, served as chairman of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Back to Work Task Force on Sports and Entertainment, which included representatives of the Astros and Houston Texans. The challenge of figuring how sports will be staged safely “fried my brain,” said Fairly, adding that the process caused him to lose sleep. “There are 8,000 issues. No one knows exactly what to do because this has never happened. It’s a true black swan moment.”
Baseball’s plan designates about 100 essential employees per team — players and other on-field personnel and “a limited number of essential staff who come in close proximity to the players.” These “Tier 1” and “Tier 2” individuals will be tested multiple times per week, though the plan doesn’t specify how many times that would be. The plan says nothing about regular testing for 150 “Tier 3” individuals who are involved in “essential event services” but will be separated from the others. If those people come into contact with someone who has the virus, they will be tested.
Beyond their families, teammates, managers and other baseball personnel, players still will be exposed to a broad range of people — from hotel staff to security personnel; from bus drivers to flight attendants. All will be traveling in their own circles when not working; MLB’s plan does not say anything about testing those workers. That creates added potential for an outbreak, experts said.
“One of the things I try to explain to people is that whatever other people are doing who live anywhere near you, is gonna affect you,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit independent think tank. “Just because you’re not going to get a tattoo when you’re in Georgia when your team is playing the Braves, if the person serving you at the restaurant is married to a person who got a tattoo or married to the person who is the tattoo artist, then you as a customer at that restaurant or even picking up carryout has the potential for being contaminated by those people who are doing those things.”
Keeping stadiums and other areas sterile will be a perpetual ordeal. It will involve perimeter security to keep fans away, both at the ballpark and hotels, where autograph seekers often congregate.
“If you saw Clayton Kershaw walking into a CVS, what’s going to keep people from going up to [him?],” said Ron Porterfield, the Dodgers’ medical director and president of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society. “That’s definitely a worry.”
Porterfield said he’s concerned about the clubhouses, given the number of doors, buttons and surfaces that would need sanitizing. Baseball’s plan discourages showering at the ballpark and bans the use of hot tubs and whirlpools. Porterfield said the Dodgers’ medical staff is still determining how much disinfectant it will need, along with possibly setting up outdoor hand-washing stations.
Porterfield said the Dodgers currently have limited protective materials and items such as N95 masks, visors and thermometers are back-ordered.
The rituals of baseball will be different, too. There will be no exchange of lineup cards. Managers will wear masks. Fighting or instigating fights will be “strictly prohibited.”
“All baseballs used for pre-game warmups and warmups between innings shall be discarded or disinfected prior to being used again,” MLB’s plan states.
In the beginning, Porterfield said, MLB might look more like American Legion ball, where you “drive to the game, you get out of your car, you open the trunk, you change right there. You grab your hat, bat and glove and play right then and there.”
The ideas are not far-fetched. The Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, adopted many of the same measures before play resumed on Saturday. Players in the league are being tested twice a week, screening that led to an entire second-division club being placed under quarantine because of two positive tests.
In Taiwan, where only seven coronavirus deaths have been reported, baseball games in the five-team league began April 12. Sunflower seeds are banned in the dugout, as they will be in MLB, and players have their temperatures checked twice a day. No outbreaks have been reported. No fans were allowed at first, but they’re now attending in limited numbers.
MLB is holding out hope that at some point fans will be able to attend games this year. If and when they do, the entire ballpark experience is likely to be altered — even baseball cuisine, one team executive said, half-jokingly, with offerings limited to pandemic-friendly foods.
“Food not disruptive to wearing a mask, [like] eating hot dogs under a mask where you take a bite or two,” he said. “Not peanuts and popcorn, anything where there’s constant biting.”
IN INTERVIEWS WITH dozens of health care experts — doctors, epidemiologists, immunologists, policy specialists, government authorities — there was consensus that the main component to keeping baseball safe will be diagnostic testing. That’s the same issue that has bedeviled the national effort to combat the coronavirus.
The goal of testing is to weed out and isolate those who test positive and prevent outbreaks. The risks of insufficient testing are incalculable. Clusters of the coronavirus have erupted in group and travel environments. In early March, more than 100 people became infected at a Boston leadership conference of Biogen, turning the drug company into an unwitting spreader of the disease to other states.
With that nightmare scenario for baseball in mind, and players and staff traveling in and out of their communities, it’s imperative for MLB to ferret out positive cases before they spread, the experts said. MLB’s plan calls for testing players and personnel “multiple times” per week, but not daily, as some experts suggest.
“If you were doing daily testing, you’d have the ability to pick up very low numbers on the virus, pick it up as soon as somebody has the ability to transmit,” said Dr. Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Carolina.
Nolan described MLB’s testing plan as a B-minus — compared to an A-plus if you were testing daily — but said she believed it could be effective, particularly if players are diligent about social distancing and limit their exposure away from the ballpark.
Trout told ESPN: “I don’t see us playing without testing every day.”
Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale professor of health policy who has offered guidance to some sports leagues and teams, said he believes baseball’s plan should work. He noted that data suggest the prevalence of the virus among top-level athletes is likely to be extremely low, plus it will be easier to limit exposure without fans and other workers at the ballparks. Forman wouldn’t say which leagues he had spoken with.
Under MLB’s plan, only the person who tests positive will be quarantined. That policy conflicts with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which call for anyone who has had close contact with a confirmed case to quarantine for 14 days. “Our experts are advising us that we don’t need a 14-day quarantine [in such cases],” Manfred told CNN. The plan says baseball is following rules established by “health care institutions and governmental entities” but does not specify which entities.
Baseball is in a difficult position: Quarantining players who come in contact with infected individuals could force MLB to shut down entire teams.
Most health experts interviewed by ESPN said they believe MLB would be increasing the risk of an outbreak by not quarantining more extensively, if only for a few days.
“CDC guidelines are pretty clear that anybody who makes substantial contact with somebody who has the virus needs to be quarantined,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Health Institute, told ESPN. “I think baseball has to ask themselves on what basis are they going against the CDC guidelines. How confident are they gonna be that another player on another team didn’t have substantial contact with that player? It just strikes me as risky. My feeling is it just depends on how lucky you feel.”
Zuckerman, who runs the nonprofit think tank in D.C., said, “I could understand not quarantining for 14 days, because potentially you’d end up never being able to play. But not quarantining at all seems dangerous.” But Humble, the former Arizona health director, said MLB developed “a reasonable plan. The idea of the CDC guidance is to minimize risk, so if you find another way, that’s OK. Guidance shouldn’t be one size fits all. This may even be better, because of the frequency of testing, which is robust.”
After a positive test, clubs are required to work with local health officials to trace those who came in contact with the infected individual. Those people will receive an expedited test and, if negative, will be allowed to remain active — raising the possibility that people exposed to the virus could return to baseball within minutes. Baseball’s plan calls for additional testing of those individuals every day for one week, with results returned within 24 hours. “That’s time someone could be infecting other players, staff, their families,” one union source said.
Experts told ESPN that it can take several days for someone to test positive after contracting the virus.
Neither Manfred nor the plan has addressed what steps MLB would take if multiple players or personnel on a team become infected. It will be a matter of when, not if, a player tests positive, health experts and public officials said. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, chairman of the National Governors Association, told ESPN: “It’s very likely that no matter what kind of safety protocols they put in place, that some players are going to be infected.”
One sports executive familiar with baseball’s plan predicted that the sport might have to temporarily shut down at times even after the season starts. Halem told ESPN that baseball will conduct up to 14,500 tests per week. He said he has been assured by the Utah lab that they will not be taking equipment or material from the public.
Griffeth, an emergency medicine and critical-care doctor at Oregon Health and Science University, said she’d be offended if MLB is able to move forward with large-scale testing while it continues to lag nationwide.
“If they say, ‘We can get the number of tests we need,’ but people that should be getting tested aren’t, it’s just rude,” she said. “I don’t know another word.”
As a consultant, MLB has hired Dr. Ali Khan, an infectious disease expert and dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health. Khan spent two decades at the CDC, where he directed the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. In 2016, he wrote “The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers”, in which he describes his adventures stalking deadly plagues across Africa, South America, the Middle East and other locales.
“When I went to medical school, becoming a geek version of Indiana Jones was not what I had in mind,” Khan writes.
MLB officials have referred to Khan as “our guy,” one of eight experts the league says it is consulting to develop its plan. But it’s unknown what he has advised baseball about returning, or whether he supports the current plan.
Khan makes frequent media appearances to talk about the coronavirus, but a university spokesperson wrote last week that “legal” reasons prevented him from commenting on MLB. In response to a public records request seeking emails between Khan and league officials, the university released six redacted documents and said it was withholding others for legal reasons. One email showed MLB first reached out to Khan on March 31, and others reflected the league advising him on how to respond to media requests.
After MLB indicated this week that it would make Khan available for comment, the university spokesperson said MLB and the school decided to hold off because “there are parts he hasn’t seen yet as it’s still in development.”
Even so, Khan has made comments that may well have implications for the sport.
“Don’t look at what’s going on in the U.S.” as a whole, he said recently. “Even though it’s one pandemic, it’s 50 different pandemics, and different pandemics even within states.”
ULTIMATELY, BASEBALL CAN play only where it’s welcome. At the national level, MLB is in sync with the White House. After meeting with league representatives on April 4, as the pandemic was spreading rapidly, President Donald Trump said: “I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we are ready. As soon as we can, obviously.”
Manfred has a good relationship with Trump, according to people close to the commissioner. He golfed with the president last October during the World Series and visited him at Trump Tower before the 2017 inauguration. Yankees president Randy Levine, a deputy mayor of New York City under Rudy Giuliani, was considered a candidate to be Trump’s chief of staff. Giuliani’s son, Andrew, is the official White House sports liaison and a frequent Trump golf partner.
MLB officials believe the president’s support will be an asset. Public health policy is generally delegated to the states.
Manfred’s attempts to win over governors underscores the power they have over MLB’s plans. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who played college baseball at Yale, is all-in on baseball returning. On Wednesday, DeSantis announced at a press conference, “All professional sports are welcome here for practicing and for playing. What I would tell commissioners of leagues is, if you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you here in the state of Florida.”
Hogan, the Maryland governor, said the buck also stops with him: “We own Camden Yards. We own M&T [Bank] Stadium for the Ravens,” he recently told ESPN. “So I’m the largest sports landlord here in our region. We, the governors of all the states, whether they own the facilities or not, will be the determining factor as to whether or not they are allowed to play sports.”
But the politics for MLB are far from clear in several places. In Toronto, the Blue Jays are under Canadian immigration restrictions for travel to the United States. A spokesperson for Mayor John Tory noted that all cities in Ontario province are under restrictions for mass gatherings “and we wouldn’t speculate when those rules … would be lifted.”
The lines of authority also vary from state to state. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey assumed control of local health policy when he declared a State of Emergency on March 11. Like DeSantis, Ducey has thrown out a welcome mat for MLB and said the state’s return to normalcy will be signaled by “two words: play ball.”
But in other states the authority resides with county health officials. In California, for example, counties in the Los Angeles, San Diego and Bay Areas have acted independently of each other and, at times, of the governor.
Many local officials interviewed by ESPN said they supported baseball’s attempts to return but cautioned that there will be several challenges. Dr. Shah, the public health director in Houston, said he believes a balance can be achieved between health and safety and “the incredible mental health, spiritual and emotional health that a lot of people” derive from sports.
“The stakes are very high: If we do this well, then the country benefits because it feels like life is getting back to some level of where we want it to be,” he said. “But if we do this unwell, unfortunately, it can set not just MLB back, it can actually set our communities back.
“I would hope that saving lives becomes the primary focus and not just saving runs.”