The real question: Does MLB have a plan for playing amid continued coronavirus risk?

So Major League Baseball is optimistic that a season will be played in 2020. Or else it wants to seem optimistic. Or else it wants to generate optimism in those with a vested interest — emotional, or otherwise. 

Regardless of the particulars, the last part worked. Seemingly between last week and this one, the tone of reports shifted from carefully balancing an eagerness to play with the harsh health realities of the coronavirus pandemic to flooding the news cycle with possible scenarios, all of which involve almost imminent baseball.

According to ESPN, a future that looks like “Finalize a plan in May. … Start the season in July” is “the most realistic option at this point.”

According to The Athletic, opening day is likely to be “somewhere between mid-June and July 4, in the view of most officials.”

There are reportedly “as many as 15 plans.” Maybe one of them includes redrawing the divisions, maybe they’ll be set in Arizona and/or Florida and/or Texas. For some reason we’re prioritizing states that are open now, or have announced plans to reopen in the next few weeks, even though the optimistic view doesn’t have games being played for another two months. And while it’s unclear exactly how loosening restrictions will impact infection rates, it certainly won’t reduce the number of cases in those states.

It’s political. Or it’s financial. And those things can be, and likely are, both true without being a slur or a dig at validity. Commissioner Rob Manfred and the team owners want to bring baseball back so they can start generating revenue again. They need states to lift lockdown orders to be able to do so.

This is a reason to be skeptical of putting sports leaders in a position to advise politicians on what to do and when to reopen. Their motivations are plain and run contrary to remaining conservative, even if that’s only incidentally. Conservative, in this matter, means prioritizing lives. Limiting the death toll. Compared to baseball, that sounds absurd or extreme or like how could they even think about coming back? But the economy, including inessentials like sports, is going to reopen before the coast is completely clear. 

As governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo make critical decisions about when and how to reopen states, sports owners have a vested interest. Yankees president Randy Levine and Mets COO Jeff Wilpon are part of his advisory board on the subject. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)
As governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo make critical decisions about when and how to reopen states, sports owners have a vested interest. Yankees president Randy Levine and Mets COO Jeff Wilpon are part of his advisory board on the subject. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

No matter where they play or when they start or how divisions are arranged, the reality is that there is no right plan — at least not this summer — that eliminates risk.

Playing baseball in 2020 is risky. Because playing baseball in 2020 means playing baseball in a country that is still battling the coronavirus. Which means that the most important part of any plan is not where they’ll play, but how. And what the league will do when a player tests positive.

A New York Times overview of how the virus will impact life in the near and far future reports that the most ambitious timeline for a vaccine is one year to 18 months. And even that would constitute a new record. More likely it will take longer. Until that vaccine exists, “the virus is expected to circulate for years, and the death tally will rise over time.” 

“The gains to date were achieved only by shutting down the country, a situation that cannot continue indefinitely,” the article says. The same could be said of baseball. Whether or not the league reacted early enough on the front end, it certainly reacted dramatically enough. A total and ultimately indefinite shutdown of the game forestalled widespread infection. 

Reopening the country means, inevitably, exposing more people to the virus. The numbers, now suppressed from weeks of stay-at-home orders, will climb once again. Baseball will be wading into this precarious balance of trying to outsmart the virus before we’ve been armed with the weaponry to actually fight it. What we have access to is surveillance and strategic retreat. 

Talking to the Times today, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the White House task force’s top public health expert — stressed the importance of incorporating social distancing, increased hygiene, and face coverings into any sports played this year. The first pitch in a real baseball game should not be interpreted as an invitation to resume normal interactions. 

Figuring out how to incorporate those precautions into a baseball game — and perhaps even more so the ancillary training and recuperation — will likely prove to be as integral to finalizing a plan to restart the season as finding a safe state to do it in. 

What this looks like practically is establishing a series of protocols and, crucially, having access to sufficient resources to keep tabs on the virus. To start a season, baseball needs fast, accurate, and abundant testing to be available to the league without cutting into the demand for the rest of the country, because avoiding hot spot cities and limiting social exposure beyond the diamond is not a perfect solution. It cannot prevent the vast population of a sports league, including players’ family members and the accompanying support staff, from coming in contact with the virus. 

“That’s the reason I stress the idea of testing everybody and having available for them tests from which you can get a result immediately,” Fauci said. “And then you’ll know whether or not someone is infected and have to get them out for a while, 14 days or whatever it is until they pass the incubation period.”

Implicit in all of this is that a player will almost certainly test positive at some point if baseball is played this season. The plan MLB needs is not the Arizona one or the Three Divisions one, but the What To Do When That Happens one.

Hannah Keyser is a reporter at Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at Hannah.Keyser@yahosports.com or reach out on Twitter at @HannahRKeyser.

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