As the start date for spring training approaches, Major League Baseball plans to proceed with the usual 162-game schedule with some modifications, thanks to Covid-19. According to current plans, games in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues will begin on February 27, with the San Diego Padres’ first game scheduled for the following day.
Leading into spring training in 2020, no one anticipated the fallout from a deadly virus initially identified in China. The first case in the United States traces back to an American who had visited China and returned to Washington. By early February, though, a growing number of cases cropped up around the country. On March 12, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the rest of the spring schedule and delayed the March 26th Opening Day by at least two weeks. Other sports leagues also acted, including the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer.
On July 6, after months of uncertainty and debate between the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association, Manfred finally announced a 60-game schedule coupled with health and safety protocols. However, outbreaks did occur and affect multiple teams’ schedules, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins.
Flash forward to January 2021, MLB appears poised to throw caution aside and go for it. No doubt, teams, and to a lesser extent players, decrying their financial losses affected the decision. According to Manfred, teams accrued debt estimated at $8.3 billion and operational losses between $2.8 billion to $3 billion last year.
At the beginning of 2020, none of us could have imagined that the United States would become the epicenter of a pandemic and lead the world in deaths. As of January 24, more than more than 2,000,000 have died worldwide, including 429,000 in the U.S. Blindsided in 2020, Manfred and company have had more than a year to plan. So far, though, full speed ahead appears to be the guiding strategy.
As of today’s plan, baseball games will begin April 1, with the Padres facing the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park. Unlike last year, fans will likely be allowed into the ballpark. According to MLB’s directive, tickets will be sold in pods allowing space for social distancing. Fans must wear masks except when they are drinking or eating. The league will not require that fans be tested or vaccinated for the virus.
The teams themselves will be responsible for their own protocols regarding player testing and vaccinating. However, MLB must review and approve those plans. Unfortunately, vaccinations will not be available to everyone anytime soon. The first wave has been limited to people on the front lines, including health care workers and by age. Obviously, healthy young males do not make the cut and will not for the foreseeable future. However, last year MLB managed to obtain test kits despite a nationwide shortage.
According to the latest information, the league and players association have not reached agreements regarding the rule changes introduced during the mini-season of 2020, including doubleheaders of seven innings rather than nine, a runner on second in extra innings, and the universal designated hitter (a favorite of players). The continued bickering centers on the almighty dollar rather than health concerns.
A return to the usual spring training and regular season schedules would especially benefit pitchers. Baseball players —especially pitchers — tend to be creatures of habit. No doubt, 2020’s shortened spring and regular schedule adversely affected pitchers physically and psychologically.
This year, thanks to general manager A.J. Preller’s non-stop wheeling and dealing, the Padres have a wealth of starting pitchers. Preller has floated the possibility of utilizing a six-man rotation as the season will increase from 60 to 162 games. Such a rotation would include Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Joe Musgrove, Chris Paddack, and Adrian Morejon with MacKenzie Gore and possibly Ryan Weathers waiting for a call-up.
A normal spring training would allow pitchers to return to their normal routines and for the new players to meet and greet their teammates. However, as the start date looms closer, warning signs abound. Arizona, the Padres’ destination, has the highest infection rate in the country. Florida’s death rate has reached a state high, and the averages of new cases exceed 2020’s numbers during the regular season.
The NBA and NHL continue to play in both states but not without Covid-19 related setbacks. Multiple games have been postponed, and players continue to test positive. In the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes’ games have been postponed at least through the end of January, and training facilities have been closed. The NBA announced that security officials would enforce social distancing directives before and after games. Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves revealed last month that he’d lost seven family members, including his mother, to the virus.
In December, MLB reportedly approached the union with a plan to push back the start of the season by a month, but the debate centered on pay and a return to the 162-game schedule rather than health. Last year players did generally stick to health and safety protocols. Testing, which began July 6, 2020, and continued through the World Series, yielded 92 positive tests (58 players and 34 staff).
As was the case last year, most players, except those with pre-existing conditions, do not fall into high-risk groups. However, some managers, umpires, coaches, and front-line staff do have higher levels of risk. With the league backing out of pandemic management, teams will have to step up to protect everyone involved. As a two-time cancer survivor and a diabetic, Padres’ chairman Peter Seidler will be well aware of the dangers of a deadly virus. Teams and players themselves will have to pick up the slack in the void left by Major League Baseball.
Cactus League director Bridget Binsbacher recently asked Manfred to delay the start of spring training for obvious reasons. The mayors of the spring training venues, including Peoria, the Padres’ home, joined with her. However, so far, no changes have been made to the schedule.
Obviously, the situation will be subject to change.