With the beginning of the 2020 MLB season indefinitely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on Wednesday that the league has one basic priority: playing as many games as possible.
Specifically, Manfred said the goal is to play a “credible number of games” in the regular season with an entertaining postseason. The commissioner conceded that in order to do that, the league will have to get creative.
"I also think that we need to be creative in terms of what the schedule looks like, what the postseason format looks like."
—@MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to @notthefakeSVP on how the upcoming season may change pic.twitter.com/F6WIlSvhVr
— ESPN (@espn) March 26, 2020
“Overall, I think our goal is to play as many baseball games as we possibly can given the limitations associated with the public health concern,” Manfred said. “I also think we need to be creative in terms of what the schedule looks like, what the postseason format looks like. Obviously, our fans love a 162 game-season and the postseason format we have. We’re probably not going to be able to do that this year.
“I think that’s clear, and it does give us an opportunity to do some different things, to experiment and to make sure we provide as many games as possible and as entertaining a product as possible.”
Manfred said that MLB is working with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and four infectious disease specialists from various universities.
He added that he also has ongoing conversations with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, MLS commissioner Don Garber and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
When will MLB return from coronavirus shutdown?
Manfred echoed MLB’s previous announcement that the earliest the season could resume is in May, but that would require the all-clear from the authorities.
“My optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up. We’ll have to make a determination depending on what the precise date is as to how much of a preparation period we need, whether that preparation period is going to be done in the clubs’ home cities or back in Florida and Arizona.”
How could MLB get ‘creative’ when the coronavirus shutdown is over?
One possibility Van Pelt asked Manfred about was Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins’ suggestion that teams could play seven-inning doubleheaders in order to work more games into fewer days.
In response, Manfred confirmed that MLB has discussed scheduling more doubleheaders, but reiterated that the nine innings number isn’t something he wants to change.
Given that the season won’t be starting any earlier than May, it seems the league will have to figure out if it wants to a) play fewer games, b) play more games per day, c) move the end of the season into the cold part of the calendar or d) all of the above.
Baseball superagent Scott Boras suggested earlier Wednesday that the season could begin on June 1 or July 1 with a 162-game or 144-game season respectively. In that structure, the postseason would extend into December with a Christmas World Series played at a neutral site.
Yahoo Sports also has some (possibly less practical) ideas.
“Nothing is off the table for us right now,” Manfred said. “There's a lot of ideas out there and we are open to all of them."
This all obviously depends on when authorities advise MLB that it’s safe to play games, and play games with fans in the stands. The former figures to come much earlier than the latter.
When will fans return to MLB games?
On the topic of fans returning to games, Manfred said the obvious. MLB wants fans at its games, it would lose money if it has to play without fans and it won’t play with fans if the public health requires it.
“Fans are crucial to baseball as we know it,” Manfred said. “The fan experience is very, very important. It’s part of the entertainment. We’ve seen it once, with the game in Baltimore, where we played empty. It’s a very different experience. Obviously, our preference would be to play with fans.
“There’s also significant economic issues. I think more than any other sport, we’re dependent on our gate and our gate-related revenue, so obviously our preference is to have fans in the ballpark as soon as the public health considerations would allow it.”
Manfred: Worst-case coronavirus scenario would be ‘tremendous hardship’
The worst-case scenario in this situation is clear: the cancellation of the 2020 season. MLB has reportedly put together a proposal on how to handle the service time end of it, but there would be plenty more to figure out.
Manfred said that such an event would be brutal for the league and its fans, stressing the economic hardship of the team owners.
“Obviously, we’re not in control of that worst-case scenario,” Manfred said. “I think that if in fact the situation with respect to the virus as such, that if it’s not safe to resume play.”
“Whether it’s in alternate sites, empty stadiums, whatever it is, we have to accept that as a reality. It would be a tremendous hardship. It would be a hardship for our fans, it would be a hardship for our players and, frankly, it would be a huge economic hardship for our owners.“
However, one certainty Manfred presented is that whatever happens, however long the coronavirus crisis rages, baseball will return. Manfred compared the sports’ role in a recovery to the return to normalcy following Sept. 11, 2001.
“It would be a real tragedy, but the one thing I know for sure is that baseball will be back,” Manfred said. “Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back. Our fans will be back. Our players will be back. We will be part of the recovery, the healing of this country from this particular pandemic.”
"But the one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back. Whenever it's safe to play, we'll be back. ... We will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country from this particular pandemic."
—@MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to @notthefakeSVP pic.twitter.com/nEGAXwOTLt
— ESPN (@espn) March 26, 2020
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