MLB faces countless obstacles to playing season in Arizona

Earlier this week, ESPN reported that MLB is considering holding its entire season – however long that is – in the Phoenix area. The 30 teams would gather at 10 spring training stadiums and the Diamondbacks' home to host a fan-free season.

MLB has since responded to the report, essentially saying it's still just kicking around ideas. But as Jeff Passan noted in the initial story, this might become the most feasible, and perhaps only way any season is played.

“MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so,” MLB said in a statement. “While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.”

In the past few days, reporters have piled onto the potential plan. But the reality is, MLB might have to find a way to eventually make it work. Less-than-ideal baseball is better than no baseball, the prevailing thought says.

Here’s a brief rundown of some questions (in no particular order) surrounding a potential all-Arizona season. It ignores the suggestion that MLB could return in May, but given the unknowns surrounding the coronavirus, it seems improbable that it comes together so soon.

By the way, this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of questions. There are endless Google results of stories pondering how MLB could pull this off. For now, I’ll cover these thoughts:

What about players’ families?

We’ll start with the obvious – and already most discussed – point. These players, most of whom are in their mid-to-late 20s, have young families. The idea of leaving them under these circumstances already has been met with some blowback.

That said, recent reports have indicated the players might be allowed to have their families after all, which while helping that situation, would go against MLB’s intention to keep its players totally isolated.

"I don't know if I could look at my kids just through a screen for four or five months," Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale said. "Same thing goes with my wife. That's a long time. But people have done it in harsh scenarios, I guess. I think there's a lot of figuring out to do."

Sale’s last sentence rings true. You’d be asking players to leave their homes behind for possibly a four-plus month trial in the desert. If the families join players, you’re widening everyone’s bubble. There’s also further risk in transportation, eateries, hotels, etc. in the area.

There’s not an easy solution here.

How will MLB re-balance schedules? 

There seems to be no way MLB would just pick up its original schedule because of balancing issues. For example, the Braves and Mets would’ve played 13 of their 19 games before June. Assuming the absolute earliest start date is sometime in June, MLB will have the task of redoing its slate.

The schedule will emphasis divisional play regardless, but how will MLB format it? If teams are congregated in Arizona, will they still play three or four consecutive head-to-head games? The Braves will need to play their divisional foes an equal number of times, but they might not be able to play the other National League teams under equal terms. In which case, the teams who get more games against the Pirates and Marlins likely would have a small advantage.

On the subject of scheduling, what about times and places?

Digging deeper into the logistical nightmare this could be, game times are a question (albeit, lower on the list). It would make sense to play early mornings (?) and later evenings, since Arizona gets so hot in between. The Diamondbacks’ home stadium has a retractable roof; the spring training sites do not.

If you’re playing games at around, say, 6 p.m. in Phoenix, then they’d be starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time. While not ideal, most fans will take the “better than nothing” stance. Broadcasts certainly would be a bit emptier and bland without the background game experience, but MLB is just trying to see if it can play at all again.

And for the minor leagues?

Minor-league teams need the gate revenue. This is near disastrous for those organizations, and all they can do is follow MLB's lead. Jesse Rogers at ESPN did a phenomenal job analyzing MiLB's options and the ramifications of the delay or cancellation.

What if one player or coach tests positive?

For this to happen, there needs to be a “significant increase” in the available tests, Passan’s report said, so MLB’s testing wouldn’t hurt access for the general public. Those involved would be tested regularly. Here’s Passan’s follow-up:

“While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said. The plan could include teams carrying significantly expanded rosters to account for the possibility of players testing positive despite the isolation, as well as to counteract the heat in Phoenix, which could grow problematic during the summer, sources said. The allure of more players potentially receiving major league salaries and service time would appeal strongly to the union, according to sources.”

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It obviously would be a serious issue if a player or coach tested positive. MLB would be working under federal guidelines and alongside the CDC to ensure the health of its employees. MLB and its players union would have to be at a point where they feel the risk is minimal. It’s difficult to envision reaching such a conclusion soon.

Eventually, things should slow down, and MLB might move forward with such an idea. But maybe more than anything else in the piece, this brings a bounty of questions.

How will the season feel legitimate?

Everyone wants sports back. Everyone wants something to watch on TV. Everyone will be tired of perusing the Netflix catalog. There are enormous financial considerations surrounding sports. In this case, baseball players want to be paid, and the league wants to recoup as much cash as it can.

So the legitimacy of the on-field product isn’t close to the biggest worry. There’s nothing “real” about the Braves and Mets squaring off four times in an empty stadium in Surprise, Arizona. The argument for it is, again, “better than nothing.” It might be MLB’s only option, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t erase the weirdness of it.

A condensed season is one thing, but these circumstances are incomparable. The fan element is a gigantic part of the game, even if you argue home field means less in baseball than other leagues. Atmospheres are such a crucial part of the sport. Players will certainly be affected to some degree. Will there be any music or walk-up songs? Will they just be playing in ambient noise? We don’t know how media access would work either, and while many fans won’t think much of that, it affects the quality and quantity of coverage they get for their team.

For a sport that’s increasingly losing its appeal among the younger crowd, would being the only sport available actually help promote the game? It undoubtedly would pull in viewers, which we all know is an angle here.

Can you imagine a World Series being played between the Braves and Yankees in a vacant Chase Field? Another meeting between these two historic franchises, whose fans have waited to see them back on the grandest stage, yet the meeting is in a quiet, mundane dome far from either team’s home base? Again, better than no World Series at all, I suppose.

Fans will take baseball, and those involved want their money. And Lord knows, the media could use something to cover. But if this unfolds, the legitimacy of the season will be questioned for years to come.

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