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St. Louis COVID-19 Outbreak Threatens to Further Shorten MLB’s 2020 Season

The St. Louis Cardinals have been the team most recently slammed by an outbreak of COVID-19. Their upcoming series against the PIttsburgh Pirates has also been postponed thanks to positive tests of 16 employees in the last 10 days.

As stated by the Chicago Sun-Times beat reporter quoted above, the Cardinals have not seen action since July 29 and have only played a total of five games this season. In comparison, the Redbirds’ division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have played a total of 16 games. According to a report by the Athletic (paywall), the Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak was unsure when the team will resume play and had been awaiting further test results over the weekend.

Postponements due to the outbreaks on the Cardinals and Miami Marlins have now seriously unbalanced the season schedule. The Cardinals have played the fewest games in MLB (5), while the Cleveland franchise, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants have played the most (17). On Sunday, former MLB front office executive Nick Francona posted a tweet discussing the possibility of determining playoff spots by winning percentage.

This would be a solution that could determine postseason eligibility without having to play multiple doubleheaders and jam makeup games into late-season off days. The Cardinals were facing a scenario of playing 55 games in 49 days if the interruption to their schedule only lasted 11 games. According to The Athletic‘s report, Mozeliak had doubts about the feasibility of such a scenario. The Cardinals have since had 13 games postponed and could be out of action for even longer.

However, determining postseason eligibility based on winning percentage would cast further doubts on the validity of a regular season that has already been shortened to just 60 games. Some teams’ remaining games would become much more significant than others.

Money matters could also become even thornier. Does the salary agreement for the 2020 season even cover the possibility that some teams might play a longer schedule than others? I doubt it.

MLB has half-assed everything about the 2020 season. The league and owners spent precious weeks haggling over salary with players and presenting the same proposal in different packages instead of working on safety protocols. After a salary agreement was reached, the players’ union had a very limited period of time to accept the proposed safety protocols in order to begin the season in late July. MLB’s protocols completely failed to address the possibility that teams could suffer major outbreaks affecting several players at once. There is no procedure other than to delay games and hope for the best.

Meanwhile, the NBA, WNBA and NHL have been able to continue or proceed with their bubble games without any major interruptions. There have been no positive tests for either the NBA or WNBA since the end of the quarantine period for arriving players. Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) have both successfully staged tournaments, although one NWSL team had to pull out of the tournament due to the timing of an outbreak which made it “logistically impossible” for the team to participate.

MLB’s lack of foresight, leadership and creativity has stifled its ability to stage a meaningful season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other team sports leagues have successfully returned to action thanks to the bubble environment and changes to competition formats. MLB could have done the same. The bubble proposal briefly discussed earlier this year was never seriously debated and a tournament format was never considered.

The resistance to change inherent in North American baseball culture hinders debate and implementation of relatively minor rules changes like a universal designated hitter, let alone major changes such as a bubble or tournament format. Fan discussion of the 2020 season has featured endless bitching about the extra innings runner on second base, which has been a feature in MiLB since 2018 and World Baseball Classic (WBC) tournaments since 2009, although it did not affect any WBC games until the 2017 edition. I can only imagine the complaining that would have occurred if tournament play had been suggested, even though such a format staged in a major city or state with multiple MLB parks would be much more feasible than the current debacle under way.

Ownership also likely played a role to curb discussion of a bubble environment. Bans on large gatherings following the initial wave of infections meant teams would no longer receive gate and concession revenues, which caused MLB to seek major cuts to player salaries and MiLB. Team owners were likely hopeful that the virus would be under control by August, allowing for fans to attend games. However, the US government’s complete failure to lead an effective response means COVID-19 is now running rampant in the United States. Fan attendance will not be feasible for sports events until community transmission ends or a vaccine becomes available. This could take years.

As I have discussed previously, MLB’s failures in 2020 have seriously damaged the league’s reputation with sports fans and media. Fan interest has waned and will continue to wane if the league is unable to stage a meaningful season. MLB must overcome its hidebound nature and adapt to the new reality, or die.

Featured Image: Waving flag with St. Louis Cardinals logo by Media Whalestock /