Blue Jays Fiasco Makes It Easy to Doubt MLB's Return Plan

The NBA constructed a bubble. The NHL is constructing two. MLB went for 30. It's hard not to be skeptical.
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The Toronto Blue Jays are moving to the United States, but they have no place to live. Pittsburgh won’t take them. It’s not clear where they will play. Sorry, guys. It’s nothing personal. This is just how America treats the homeless. Besides, this is only happening because Canada doesn’t want a bunch of freedom-loving Americans patriotically bringing them the coronavirus. Losers!

Welcome to the 2020 Major League Baseball Season-ette. It will last 60 games, unless it doesn’t. One team has no home. Every team has no fans. And the big question hovers above each ballpark like a completely wasted aerial advertisement: Did baseball botch this?

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s worst nightmare is not that the baseball season gets canceled. It is that the baseball season gets canceled while the NBA and NHL crown champions. The leagues have combined for roughly a million protocols and guidelines, but Manfred may have mistaken a detailed plan for a complete one.

The NBA constructed a bubble. The NHL is constructing two. MLB went for 30, spanning four time zones and two countries, until Canada said, “No thanks.” Now the Blue Jays may have to barnstorm, which would be kind of awesome, unless you’re a Blue Jay.

With nothing guaranteed, the goal here is to leave as little as possible to chance. When a major league team is scrambling for a home the day before the season opens, what does that tell you? This week, the Blue Jays were left to wonder if the lights in Buffalo were good enough for them. I’ve seen better advance planning from people on the lam.

If the virus spreads quickly through one team, it could destroy the whole season, for any sport. Baseball is essentially setting up near 29 or 30 fires and hoping nobody gets burned.

Maybe it will work anyway. A 60-game season is so absurd and un-baseball-like that it doesn’t even need an asterisk; everybody who speaks of it will always note that it was a 60-game season. A team that would be bad over 162 games will make the playoffs. A mediocre one could win the World Series. All stats belong in the Small Sample Size Hall of Fame. But this is where we are. Any baseball season is better than no baseball season.

It’s obviously not Manfred’s fault that the baseball season will be shorter. The sport shut down, along with everything else this spring, so America could focus on the serious business of talking about taking the virus seriously. The issue is what happened when the sports came back.

You could tell which league had a terrible relationship with its union, and which commissioner did not have the trust of his players. The NBA had a relatively smooth process, ending with a plan that makes a lot of sense. The basketball bubble in Orlando might pop, but the NBA was wise to put everybody in one place. The NHL was wise to put 24 teams in two hubs, Toronto and Edmonton, which are not currently hotspots.

Major League Baseball is coming back and going everywhere. Teams will play in their home parks. That is a very simple, obvious risk. Teams will travel a lot–not as much as normal, but still a lot. Yes, the NBA ended up playing its games in a hotspot–but baseball guaranteed it would play its games in hotspots by holding them all over the place. That means MLB is subject to the success of many communities and the rulings of many governments.

The NBA and NHL bubbles don’t just reduce the risk; they serve as a constant reminder to everybody that they are in a bubble. Every day, those players and coaches will remember the circumstances as soon as they wake up. Of course they could break the rules anyway. But they would be far more likely to do it if, like baseball players, they were living at home and traveling around the country,

Nobody knows exactly how any of this will go. But you would have to be Pete Rose to bet on baseball being the only season to finish.

Creating an environment to salvage a season is hard. We know so much more about the virus than we did when sports shut down in March … and yet, we don’t know nearly enough. We know masks are more effective than initially believed. We don’t know where the virus will strike next or what the country will look like in September. We don’t know if any sports season will finish. We do know leagues need the best possible plan to give themselves the best possible chance. Manfred is betting his plan is good enough. Let’s hope he is right.