For all the trouble that the NBA and NHL are having with their current seasons, it’s all the more remarkable what Major League Baseball was able to achieve outside of a bubble last year.
While baseball was rightly hammered at the start of its shortened season, as coronavirus outbreaks ravaged the Marlins and Cardinals, among others, MLB and the players’ union made adjustments, and went 59 days without a single positive test… right up until Justin Turner’s idiotic misadventure at the World Series cast everything in a bad light all over again.
So, it makes sense that the health and safety protocols for the upcoming season, announced on Tuesday, are for the most part running it back on what MLB and the MLBPA agreed to in 2020.
The problem is that, even as successful as last year’s model was, Turner still did get COVID, and had the Dodgers not won Game 6 of the World Series to wrap up the title, the league would have had a nightmare on its hands about what to do with Game 7. One of the tricky things with the virus is that you can follow protocols to lower risk factors, but the only way to ensure no one gets sick is to keep everyone at home and not do things like, say, have a baseball season.
This baseball season has two key differences from the last one. First, MLB is no longer going with a geographic-based schedule, which means more travel — and transcontinental travel — for everyone. Also, the plan is for minor league baseball to be back, although its schedule remains to be determined.
Last year, the lack of a minor league season made it easy for MLB teams to get reinforcements in the event of injuries or coronavirus. All they had to do was call down to the Alternate Training Site, and someone fresh could come right up, having already been participating in the safety protocols.
The Alternate Training Site remains part of the framework of the 2021 protocol, with the plan being that players from the ATS will be used to fill out the Taxi Squad when teams go on the road. Teams are responsible for ensuring safe travel for players between the ATS and where they meet their teams, but this is where the non-geographic schedule comes into play.
The rule on the ATS is that it must be “located sufficiently close to the location where the club will play its home games during the championship season that commercial air travel is not required.” So, while the Yankees could keep their ATS last year in Scranton, where they have their Triple-A team a two-hour drive from the Bronx, the White Sox, whose top affiliate is in Charlotte, needed to use the facility of an independent league team in Schaumburg, Ill.
Further complicating things is that there is no minor league schedule yet, minor league spring training won’t start until the major league season is underway because its trying to keep the spring training facilities uncrowded, and the Alternate Sites from last year were a mix of minor league stadiums, independent league facilities, and colleges. MLB plans to continue with the ATS program because there’s no guarantee that the minor league season will go smoothly, but MLB could not provide clarity on how Triple-A and an ATS program could exist simultaneously, other than that the plan is to have both.
There’s still time to figure out the logistics of it all, especially since it’s unlikely that minor league baseball will be played — or, in the MLB legalese, it probably won’t be until well into April, if not May, that “the commissioner commences the Class AAA championship season,” in which case “Clubs may be required to change the location of their Alternate Training Sites.” And exactly who’s playing daily competitive Triple-A baseball and who’s grinding out intrasquad workouts at an ATS is going to be a tricky needle to thread.
These are the questions that MLB needs to figure out the answers to, though, because just having had 59 straight days last summer without a positive test doesn’t mean that the whole operation is foolproof. Turner was the fool who proved that, and in the days following the World Series, other Dodgers got coronavirus, too.
The weak points of MLB’s plan for 2021 are one that existed last year — the possibility of members of someone’s household bringing in the virus — and this new one, coronavirus getting into baseball through the minor leagues, along with the extra air travel that will be a necessary part of playing out the new year’s schedule.
MLB has a shot to pull it off again, but the best shot remains the COVID-19 vaccine, and the sooner everyone gets that, the better off we’ll all be.