The Integrity of the Game and its Fans Should be MLB's Focus When it Returns
One thing about the current leadership in Major League Baseball -- it likes to think outside the box.
But let's not get too far outside the box.
And if the reports of the idea of having all 30 teams playing in isolation in Arizona as early as possibly sometime in May are true. ...
Well, let's just say that hopefully the statement issued by Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday is honest and sincere:
“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,” the MLB statement said. “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. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.
“The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”
I am as anxious as anyone for baseball to get back on the field, and games to be played. It's been may passion for the better part of 69 years.
So much that when my mother took me out of school to go to Game 2 of the Braves/Dodgers playoff for the NL championship in 1959, she wrote a note to the school that, "it should be an excused absence because Tracy will be a sports writer when he grows up."
But the return of the game needs to be done correctly. It needs to be done without sacrificing what makes the game great.
Yes, playing games with nobody in attendance would satisfy the TV markets, and put some money into the pockets of the teams and the folks in New York.
However, it doesn't seem right.
Maybe I am naive. But for some reason I've always felt that the most important part of the game is the fan.
It's the people who emotionally live and die with every pitch. It's the people who want the manager given a lifetime contract if their team wins the World Series, and the next year wants the guy fired immediately if he doesn't lead the team to a repeat championship. It's the people who put cheeks in the seats and create a feeling that every pitch matters.
Yes, baseball has become a big-dollar entity, willing to prostitute itself for the sake of a few more dollars in a TV contract.
But there has to come a time when the men in charge of the game think about the person who buys the ticket, and brings his/her family or buddies to the ballpark.
Right now would be a good time to do just that.
There doesn't need to be a false front, either.
In reports about the Monday session MLB held with owners there was an indication that the season would start with all 30 teams in Arizona, using the Diamondbacks ballpark and the 10 spring training facilities to host games.
Fans wouldn't be admitted to the stands because of concerns about the coronavirus.
And there was talk that an automated strike zone would be used to make sure the home plate umpire stayed the recommended six feet from the catcher.
That's the same automated strike zone that in November Manfred said was making progress but still wasn't ready for the big leagues. It was supposed to spend this season splitting time between the Class A Florida State League and the independent Atlantic League, not pushing its way into the big leagues.
While the cameras are great at picking up the ball/strike call in terms of inside or outside, they are a complete failure on pitches up and down.
And that is the same automated strike zone that Manfred, in a recent appearance on MLB Network, praised the potential of an automated strike zone but admitted it isn't ready for prime time.
"I think we need to be ready to use an automated strike zone when the time is right," he said. "That's why we experimented in the Atlantic League. It's why we went to the Arizona Fall League. It's why we're using it in Minor League Baseball (in 2020), in some ballparks at least.
"I think it is incumbent upon us to see if we can get the system to the point we're comfortable it can work. I only would go to an automated strike zone when we were sure that it was absolutely the best it can be. Getting out there too early with it and not having it work well, that'd be a big mistake."
Well, there's been no proof on the field in five-plus months that anything has happened to change Manfred's mandate earlier this off-season.
Oh, and if the umpires are standing six-feet from the catcher to avoid the potential of the virus spreading, does that mean the catcher will be six feet back from the batter? Does that mean the infielders will remain six feet away from a baserunner. If so, does that mean first basemen can't hold runners on first? If so, how can an infielder tag out a runner going into second or third? And what about the catcher, taking a throw to the plate in hopes of nailing a runner?
If there's concerns about an umpire breathing, shouldn't there also be concerns about bodily contact among the players?
And if the six-foot free space rule is that vital, does that mean the players will be spread out in the stands, instead of crammed into a dugout which is no where big enough to ensure the necessary six-foot spacing.
I mean, if there is going to be a dog-and-pony show over where the home plate umpire is going to stand six feet behind the catcher, how can baseball endorse the idea of proximity and contact among the players? Or is MLB is confident the players will be coronavirus-free, but the umpires will pose a threat?
Yes, MLB and the owners are anxious to get the game on the field. There's so much money at stake.
But truth be told, they aren't any more anxious than the fans, who may not cough up the contracts of the TV networks, but are supposed to be the heart-and-soul of the game.
With attendance on a steady decline in the last decade, Manfred has said it is a priority to create an environment that will encourage fans to return to the ballpark.
Somehow, shutting them out of the ballpark doesn't seem like a step in the right direction.
It makes even less sense than making sure the umpire is six-feet away from the catcher, and using a sub-par automated video system to handle balls and strikes.