Going into the 2020 Major League Baseball season, we all knew problems would proliferate once the games started. Unlike the NBA and NHL, baseball teams are trying to play all of their games in their home ballparks. To this point, we’ve seen mixed results.
To date, several teams have been affected by COVID-19 outbreaks. Initially, news broke about the Miami Marlins and their widespread positive tests with players, which prompted games to be postponed. Now, the St. Louis Cardinals are running into their own problems, prompting another stretch of games to be shelved for teams in the two central divisions.
The Washington Nationals are no exception. The team hasn’t seen any major issues regarding the virus, except for the drama surrounding the return – or lack thereof – of outfielder Juan Soto. Over the weekend, the Nationals were supposed to be in Miami for a three-game set against the Fish. On the schedule, that series now reads Postponed: COVID-19, a strange commonality forming within baseball.
While I don’t question the whole enterprise, at some point we must entertain the question: When does competitive integrity diminish? The Marlins weren’t really expected to be competitive, but teams on their schedule who’ve been victims of postponements were, like the Nationals or Philadelphia Phillies.
Speaking of the Phillies, they were told to stay off the field for a week, while attempting to retain some semblance of game readiness while their opponents pressed on. For Philadelphia, four games against the New York Yankees and three against the Toronto Blue Jays were postponed.
The Cardinals, playoff contenders out of the National League Central, had games against the Milwaukee Brewers, also playoff contenders, and Detroit Tigers, postponed. Sure, some of these games will be made up. But it seems unlikely that all of the necessary games will be made up. This could create problems come playoff time. The league was already working with a fairly tight window to finish 60 games, but now teams are being forced into weeklong hiatuses, something that virtually guarantees the infeasibility of finishing the full slate of games. What if the Cardinals or Phillies have to take another week off?
This is a difficult situation for the league to navigate. MLB is rightfully putting health and safety first – at least, purportedly that’s the case – but there is the lingering question of how the league will maintain competitive balance. It’s easier to overlook a reduction in games played for teams like the Marlins, but it’s much more difficult when it’s happening to teams that are expected to be legitimate postseason and World Series contenders. What happens if the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers have to pause play for two weeks? Three weeks? When does the league step in and say, “Okay, this isn’t going to work”?
For now, we can try to enjoy the season, even with all the bumps in the road and oddities in the situation, but for teams and fans who’ve been affected early on, it’s challenging not to at least speculate how reasonable it is to press on with the season; or at the very least, how high the integrity is in a sport that will likely see large gaps of games completed at the end of the season. I guess there’s another scenario that could play out: If every team experienced a clubhouse outbreak, then all teams would be “disadvantaged” equally, therefore rendering the playing field equal in an odd turn of events. But hey, that’s par for the course in 2020.