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Baseball Without Fans? What A Pandemic Summer Season Could Look Like

Professional sport returned to South Korea on April 21 as coronavirus restrictions ease, with the first pitch thrown in a baseball preseason derby in front of empty stands. (Jung Yeon-je /AFP via Getty Images)
Professional sport returned to South Korea on April 21 as coronavirus restrictions ease, with the first pitch thrown in a baseball preseason derby in front of empty stands. (Jung Yeon-je /AFP via Getty Images)

We look at what’s fair and foul in Major League Baseball’s proposal to return to the field this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.


Jeff Passan, senior MLB Insider for ESPN. ( @JeffPassan)

Doug Glanville, baseball analyst and former MLB player. ( @dougglanville)

Jason Gay, sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal. ( @jasongay)

Bob Costas, MLB Network host and play-by-play announcer.

What A Pandemic Summer Season Could Look Like

The MLB is the only U.S. professional sports league to propose a plan for re-starting their season — a shortened one, 82 games with minimal team travel, this summer. But as Americans look forward to the return of their national pastime amid the chaos of the pandemic, the league itself is having some issues negotiating with players who are hesitant to return to the field and risk their health for, according to the proposal, less pay than they’d normally receive.

And that’s not the only concern: The game itself could look very different during a pandemic. Games with no fans at all populating the stands, no “murmur of the crowd,” as MLB announcer Bob Costas calls it. And per the new public health rules, other traditional aspects of the game like the full dugout, handshakes, and even sunflower seed spitting could be things of the past.

Baseball experts, a former player, and an announcer joined us to talk about the future of baseball in a country still struggling to reign in a deadly virus.

Interview Highlights

On the hard-going bargaining negotiations between players and owners

Jeff Passan: “There is a ticking clock right now. And the issue, Jane, has not so much been the extremity of their positions, but what the positions actually are that they’re fighting about. And it’s money. And it is not going over particularly well right now in the public’s view when in the midst of a pandemic, when tens of millions of people are unemployed, you’ve got billionaires and millionaires fighting over how to split up billions. So I think that they recognize how that is absolutely a no-win situation for anybody involved.”

On why MLB players rejected a revenue-split solution

Jeff Passan: “The reaction to this revenue split, 50-50 between the players and the owners, was so overwhelmingly negatively received that Major League Baseball didn’t even end up proposing it. The reason it was received so poorly by the players is because unlike the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap. Now, when you have a salary-capped sports, a revenue split makes sense. It’s the easiest way to divide things because you have levels that you can actually reach and you say, well, if this is how much money is being made in the industry, we know that we can fairly split it up. In baseball, it’s a much more free market. It’s a free market onto which players have held for generations now. And so even though this was not theoretically a salary cap, it felt like one to the players and it’s why it has been so summarily rejected.”

On the MLB’s plan to ensure public health and safety when the season begins

Jeff Passan: “You ask health experts about this 67 page memo and they almost uniformly agree that it is incredibly thorough, and that Major League Baseball actually did or did a pretty good job coming up with some of these, too, to the point where some of them may be a little excessive… But ultimately, I don’t think that health and safety are going to be the biggest issues here.”

On why baseball’s return could be a much-needed symbol of normalcy

Jason Gay: “What I think about baseball is that it has a kind of atmospheric quality. It’s unlike any other sport in the respect that it’s kind of like a soundtrack to the season that all of us are familiar with, the sort of ambient noise of a baseball game on radio, in the background… And I think to have that kind of soundtrack return, you know, I don’t want to say it’s an inspirational thing, but I think it would make people feel there was at least some semblance of normalcy in what is clearly not a very normal time.”

On the political considerations of green-lighting the 2020 season

Jason Gay: “The White House has made abundantly clear that they see sports and in particular the sport of baseball being symbolic of America’s return to some degree of normalcy. They have been very public about this fact, the idea of baseball returning over Fourth of July weekend. There’s intense symbolism in that alone. And so I think there is, you know, in addition to all this stuff that’s happening behind the scenes between the players union and the league to try to make this work, there’s also an enormous amount of political pressure and public pressure to try to reach some sort of resolution as well.”

On what’s at stake for the MLB in restarting its 2020 season

Doug Glanville: “Everything’s at stake. And, you know, combining the necessity of figuring out what system by which they can play, is the question marks around the certainty of whether they can play at all. And, you know, when you look at the example and the opportunity that it could set with the fact that all eyes are on Major League Baseball, almost looking at it as a lens to, can we get back to some semblance of normal or can we actually move forward with certain traditions? Baseball is at the heart of this. And the way they handle it and the way they resolve the differences to make this possible is absolutely critical to how anything can move forward.”

Bob Costas: “If the reason it’s canceled is a labor dispute, a money dispute, then that’s a horrible public relations hit for baseball and for the players as a group. If the reason they either can’t resume or they have to suspend again is out of honest concern for health and safety, then I think that’s OK. Everyone would understand that. But if it’s a money dispute, then you’re right back where they were during the ‘70s and ‘80s and especially ‘94, ‘95, when they lost the World Series.”

On the challenges faced by the player’s association

Doug Glanville: “There’s a certain selflessness that has to come through to be truly unified as a players association. And the challenge today is that every player is facing a certain existential or survival related component like nothing else we’ve ever seen. Whether you’re living with grandparents or whether you have a newborn or and those personal choices are hard to aggregate or consolidate around a sort of union mission which has been long-standing, the strength of the players association. And that’s the big issue that the players are facing, because it’s one thing to be battling individually like Blake is, with ownership directly; it’s another thing to unify that message and actually come away with a solution and a front that will go up against player the league and therefore say, here’s where we stand. That’s the huge challenge.”

On baseball players letting go of now-unsafe game habits

Doug Glanville: “I don’t even know how they’ll be able to keep this consistent through so many different people that are going to be involved who might forget not to spit and all this. That is highly challenging because you’re talking about retraining all these, you know, habits, really. I mean, I ate bags of sunflower seeds during every game. And it’s almost a reflex to do it. So, I’m not sure how they can, you know, be able to do it and not be in the public eye like, oh, see that guy sneeze or this person spit out sunflower seeds… So there’s gonna be an element of not being able to follow this. And what that means and how they respond to it is another thing, but there is no way you’re going to get all these players to be able to pull that off.”

On what we’ll miss without fans in the stands

Jason Gay: “What we’re describing here is nowhere near the genuine article. This is not going to be a complete substitute for any kind of sports experience. Hopefully it will be good enough. I think that, unquestionably, watching some of the leagues that have started to come back without fans — we’re seeing baseball played in Asia, we’re seeing ultimate fighting, cage fighting happening in the United States. We’re seeing soccer played in Germany. It’s weird! It’s weird. It is weird to not have the dynamic of roaring fans and just that whole atmosphere of it. I think that for many people, sports is a television endeavor for sure. But I think we’re underestimating what fans deliver to the actual viewing experience. Even if you’re sitting home alone on the couch, I think that the thing that gets projected through that screen from the energy of the crowd.”

Bob Costas: “Any broadcaster can tell you that the crowd — not just when the crowd reacts, not just when something big happens and there’s wild cheering, but for example, in baseball, the murmur of the crowd, that kind of low hum, that’s part of the broadcast. And almost unconsciously, because we’ve done it for so long, you’re hearing it through your headset and it affects how much you think you should speak. The little spaces where we wouldn’t ordinarily speak are filled with crowd sound, and when they’re not, four or five seconds can seem like an eternity. Well, I’ll have to adjust to it.”

From The Reading List

ESPN: “ MLB safety proposal includes thorough testing, social distancing, no spitting” — “Major League Baseball’s ambitious return-to-play plans during the coronavirus pandemic include processing upward of 10,000 COVID-19 tests per week, overhauling stadiums and in-game settings to encourage social distancing, and rigorous rules intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a draft of the league’s health-and-safety manual obtained by ESPN.”

The Ringer: “ The Ryen Russillo Podcast: The Murky Future of the MLB With Jeff Passan” — “Russillo shares his thoughts on Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s comments regarding the possibility of players taking a pay cut for a shortened MLB season.”

ESPN: “ The immensity of MLB’s plan to return through a daunting health-and-safety protocol” — “What’s most striking about Major League Baseball’s 67-page health-and-safety protocol outlining an attempt to return amid the coronavirus pandemic isn’t its little, snicker-worthy details — that players won’t be able to take Ubers and can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder for the national anthem and, gulp, will be discouraged from postgame showers.”

Wall Street Journal: “ Thanks for Masking! A Case for Covering Up” — “I want to talk about masks, because it feels like a hot topic right now, and there aren’t a lot of hot topics in sports at the moment. I mean, I love Michael Jordan as much as anybody, but I’m bored of all these strained debates about Michael Jordan. He was a great basketball player, likely the greatest who ever was.”

ESPN: “ As a former player, it would be a shame for baseball to return without fans” — “Last week, a package arrived at my house. It came from retired New Jersey state trooper Mike Dittmar. It had been many years since we last connected, but I will always remember the few words he said to me when we met.”

USA Today: “ Korea Baseball Organization will have curious MLB fans watching as regular season begins” — “It may be taking place halfway around the world, but live regular-season baseball is about to begin.”

Wall Street Journal: “ Quiet Please, I’m Pitching! Sports in the Age of No Fans” — “Sports are starting to come back without fans in the stadium, and I fully support this idea—it’s a way to get the games we love to return faster, and more safely, and allow everyone to make the same joke about this being business as usual for the Miami Marlins.”

USA Today: “ Opinion: MLB and players must play ball and immediately settle economic dispute” — “Stop it. Enough already. We want to watch New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole face Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez at Yankee Stadium, not MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Players’ union chief Tony Clark arguing behind closed doors.”

ESPN: “ Report: MLB projects loss of $640,000 per game without fans” — “Major League Baseball told players their prorated salaries would contribute to an average loss of $640,000 for each game over an 82-game season in empty ballparks, according to a presentation from the commissioner’s office to the union that was obtained by The Associated Press.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.