Baseball is Still Trying to Save Season as Other Sports Hit Cruise Control

As Major League Baseball’s owners and players continue to haggle over the parameters of what a 2020 season would look like in terms of number of games played and percentage of compensation, NASCAR and IndyCar are up and running, and the NBA is about to be up and running.

NASCAR which became the first major professional sports league to return to action last month, is set to hit another milestone on June 14 when it allows some fans into the track to see the action in person. Welcoming of fans into the facility comes with restrictions, and is also occurring during a time when nearly half of the states in the United States are seeing the number of cases of COVID-19 go up. It is also occurring as other states are being questioned about whether they are providing an accurate count of the total number of COVID-19 cases within their communities.

Make no mistake, these are truly uncharted waters, and the entire process is just one big wave away from capsizing faster than the ship in The Poseidon Adventure. Still, for many it is full steam ahead, into the great wide open.

The fact that other sports leagues are resuming their interrupted seasons is placing added pressure on MLB to start their 2020 season, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 26. While the main issues preventing the MLB from playing ball seem to be mostly financial, not all of the players are being affected the same way.

Established MLB players, and recently drafted Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players, can easily sit out the season if it comes down to it since for the most part their jobs are safe.

The fact that other sports leagues are resuming their interrupted seasons is placing added pressure on MLB to start their 2020 season, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 26.
Photo R. Anderson

For other players, a lost season could cost them their last chance to make it onto a Big-League roster and leave the long bus rides of MiLB behind.

I have been thinking a lot about those players in both affiliated and independent baseball lately. As I have noted several times before, I cut my Ballpark teeth by mostly watching Southern League baseball when I was growing up. In recent years, despite being located closer to an MLB Ballpark, than an Independent League Ballpark, I have found myself driving the extra 20 minutes and spending more time watching the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPA) than the Houston Astros.

Nothing says Ballpark fun quite like a mascot adjacent box seat near the dugout. Isn’t that right Swatson?
Photo R. Anderson

For me, Minor League Baseball is a purer form of the game and allows me to be closer to the field for the same price as a nosebleed ticket at an MLB Ballpark. With Minor League Ballparks being about a third of the size of their Major League counterparts, one can really get up close and personal to the action.

Unfortunately, those Minor League players that I enjoy watching the most are the ones who are finding uncertain futures, as well as uneasy presents. To their credit many MLB teams and players have offered to pay the salaries of the players in their farm systems. However, with efforts to reduce the number of MiLB teams, as well as reducing the number of players drafted, in the coming years, there will be far fewer people who will get to chase their dreams of making it to the Show.

Of course, less affiliated Minor League baseball should mean an uptick in players wanting to play Independent League baseball which may lead to the rise of new leagues and teams to fill the void left behind following any contraction of affiliated baseball.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a star pitcher on the school baseball team. The team made it to the state playoffs my junior year. The following year, it was not uncommon to see various pro scouts in the stands.

My friend was a southpaw pitcher, which was then, and continues to be a hot commodity sought after by many MLB clubs. My friend ended up signing with the New York Yankees in the second round of the MLB June Amateur Draft right out of high school and as Tom Petty would say, “the future was wide open.”

Setbacks on the field, as well as off the field, led him to bounce around the Minor Leagues like a fan trying to reach first base in a dizzy bat race. My friend spent six years in the Yankees organization and never advanced above AA ball, as well as playing four years of Independent League baseball. Over 10 seasons he had a career .513 winning percentage, and a career 4.32 earned run average (ERA). After 10 years of chasing the dream my friend finally called it a career without so much as a cup of coffee in the show.

My friend spent six years in the Yankees organization and never advanced above AA ball, as well as playing four years of Independent League baseball proving that not every dream of playing MLB ball comes true.
Photo R. Anderson

There are thousands of players just like my friend who seek the bright lights of big-league ballparks only to find their dreams cut short. While the answer varies depending on who you ask, most people can agree that only about 10 to 20 percent of the people drafted by MLB teams will ever make it to the Majors.

So, the thinking goes that by reducing the number of teams and the rounds in the draft MLB is forcing people who wouldn’t have made it to the MLB anyway to start their post baseball playing days earlier.

Many will bounce along as long as possible chasing the dream until the realities of life and family commitments lead them to a steadier form of work. These players are the real Crash Davis types, in honor of the character Kevin Costner played in Bull Durham.

I lost track of my friend a few years before the end of his career but would still follow his career whenever I saw a blurb on one of the Minor League sites. I hope he is doing well for himself and that he landed on his feet after he hung up his glove for the last time.

Whenever baseball does resume it will be different on so many fronts. COVID-19 exposed a crack in the professional sports diversion that people have counted on to get them through so many other trying times in the past. Now that people know that sports are not the recession proof, tragedy proof, and pandemic proof light in a time of darkness that they thought they were, people will need to decide whether they will still put their trust in sports to distract and comfort them, or if they will find other ways to deal with whatever life throws at them.

In many ways, we are all Minor League players trying to hang on to the dream for one more season, while knowing in the back of our heads that at some point we will need to put our cleats away and face life head on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to watch Bull Durham.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

Remembering our Heroes (Past and Present) on Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day. I say that with confidence after checking a calendar to confirm my suspicions. Normally, I would have no trouble at all remembering that the last Monday of May is set aside as a day of remembrance, and a time to honor the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

However, in this newfound time when one day can just roll into the next and be called MonTueWedday, it never hurts to check a calendar for guidance as society charts new territory. This potential side effect of not knowing what day it is comes as much of the world is sheltering in place and honoring the calls to social distance as we unite as one in the battle against the COVID-19 virus which has killed nearly 100,000 Americans.

Large flags and camouflage hats mark Memorial Day across Major League Baseball each year.
Photo R. Anderson

In the past, Memorial Day weekend acted as the unofficial start to summer and involved packed beaches and an overabundance of sports to watch. The weekend also lent itself to copious amounts of meat to cook over an open flame.

While I enjoy baseball, beaches and barbecue, for me, the highlight of the extended Memorial Day weekend has always been as the announcer used to say “Sunday, Sunday Sunday.” I would awake before the sun to catch the Monaco Grand Prix, and then switch over to the Indianapolis 500 before ending my day of nonstop auto racing with the Coca Cola 600.

The times that I was not watching racing, I could catch numerous baseball games from coast to coast.

As a sign of unity during troubling times, the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and the Air Force’s Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, flew over several U.S. cities to honor front line workers.
Photo R. Anderson

That all changed this year. Thanks to COIVD-19, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 were not run Memorial Day weekend.

The Coca Cola 600 did take place yesterday, but the stands were empty of the thousands of fans who usually soak in the action. Additionally, there is no joy in Mudville since baseball is still sidelined by the virus.

The NHL and the NBA suspended their seasons in March with no set timetable on when they will return to action. There will be increased drum beats in the coming weeks for sports to return. Leagues are hemorrhaging money and will want to try to recoup as much revenue as they can.

Owners will say that they are doing it for the fans, but many surveys have noted that a lot of sports fans will not feel comfortable heading to an event for a while. Athletes are also becoming more vocal in their opposition to returning to play until they can be assured that it is safe to do so.

So, it is on this Memorial Day that instead of rooting for one’s favorite team, the world has a common enemy to unite behind. The world is at its best when it works together, and there has perhaps been no greater battle than the one it currently finds itself in. Millions of Americans are working from home, alongside children who are learning from home.

Millions more Americans have lost their jobs and are questioning when things will return to the good old days known as before March 2020. It is entirely possible that the good old days as we knew them are years away from returning.

Veterans with underlying health conditions, and the Navajo Nation whose language was used as an unbreakable code in World War II are being hit especially hard by COVID-19, so it is fitting on this day of remembrance that we not only remember their sacrifice in time of war but that we pray for their safety in this battle against the virus.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was commissioned in 1921 as a memorial to veterans of World War I.
Photo R. Anderson

States are starting to ease restrictions on what people can do in an effort to spark the economy. There will no doubt be temptation to push the limits and go out and have as normal of a Memorial Day as possible, and just hope for the best in terms of avoiding infection from COVID-19.

Some politicians will call this the need for people to exercise pent up demand to get out and do normal things. Other politicians will call such actions reckless and an endangerment to others around them. Countries that have reopened early have seen their number of cases go up in some instances. There is no magic formula for deciding when to roll out a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Throughout all of this, it is crucial to remember that the power resides with individuals to decide when they want to rejoin the economy. Just because something is open, it does not mean that people are forced to go there. COIVD-19 is a relentless scourge that takes no notice of a person’s sports affiliation, political leanings, or any other factors in its path of destruction.

Uncle Sam knew back in World War II that the world needed more moxie. While it may have been a soda slogan back then, today the need for moxie is stronger than ever as the world tries to fight a common public health enemy.
Photo R. Anderson

In past challenges that are remembered on Memorial Day, like World War II, citizens rallied to do all they could to defeat the common enemy.

My grandmother built battleships in Georgia, and my grandfather fought at Pearl Harbor, among other battle sites. My grandparents, and millions of other people’s grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters have done similar things when called to duty.

Memorial Day reminds us that Americans owe their freedom to the sacrifice made by countless individuals who came before us, and to the people who are currently serving in the armed forces. The sacrifice of those who came before us who we remember on Memorial Day made us who we are. Sacrifices people make now to contain the virus, is a gift we can leave for the generations that come after us.

The COVID-19 virus has shown us that a pair of scrubs, a retail vest, or an apron can be just as heroic as camo. Sports on Memorial Day will return, but this year on this day of remembrance instead of complaining about a lack of live sports, stop to think about the health care workers, the police officers, the fire fighters, the grocery store workers, the meat packers, the restaurant cooks, the warehouse fulfillment workers, the delivery drivers, and every other person across the globe who is doing their best to keep the world going.

Many of us are taught as kids that super heroes wear capes and masks. That is true, but the capes are invisible lest they get in the way of the work being done by the people on the front lines, and the masks are there to both protect the identify of the super hero, as well as to protect those around them. Lucky for us our modern day heroes are working on Memorial Day, and every other day keeping us safe from enemies seen and unseen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pick up some groceries curbside and thank some front line workers.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

NASCAR Provides First Look at What the Return of Sports Could Look Like as Other Sports Sit Impatiently in Neutral

Brad Keselowski started on the pole on May 17, 2020 when NASCAR returned to live racing after a nearly two month hiatus.
photo R. Anderson

When the history books are written to describe the era of COVID-19, it is likely that yesterday, May 17, 2020, will be remembered as the day that sports returned to America.

Okay, to be fair, all sports did not return yesterday. Declaring the “all clear, come and play ball y’all” is likely months away from occurring. Factor in a return to wide open, stadium rockin’ sports as they were prior to March 2020, and some experts say that could be a year or more away.

Still, yesterday will be remembered as the day that NASCAR told their drivers to start their engines, and the fans to stay home and watch. It is easy to see how NASCAR was the first sport to draw up a game plan for a return to competition.

Kyle Busch is set to run seven races in 11 days in all three NASCAR series as part of the sport’s return to live competition.
photo R. Anderson

Drivers sit alone in their 3,000 plus pound octane 93 fueled chariots. So, even during rubbing and bump draftin’, social distancing can be maintained.

Throw in helmets, and protective gear for the pit crew members, and you have yourself a ready-made example of responsible sport in the COVID-19 era. At least that is how the plan is supposed to work.

While social distancing works in NASCAR, other sports leagues will find it harder to show that the athletes are separated by the recommended Center for Diseases Control (CDC) guidelines of six feet of separation. The next sport on the clock to try to return a fan-free viewing experience to the world is Major League Baseball.

Baseball has already returned in South Korea where the season opened in empty ballparks, followed by ballparks allowing up to 1,000 fans to attend from a safe social distance.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where Major League Baseball says the first 1,000 people to the ballpark are allowed inside. It is safer to say, that the only people sitting in the stands for the foreseeable future whenever baseball does return will be team employees.

While no exact timeline has been established for the return of baseball, when it does return it is likely that the pregame lineup exchange at home plate will be eliminated.
photo R. Anderson

I have said this before, and it bears repeating, I miss baseball. However, I do not miss baseball to the point that I want to see players, umpires, and other team personnel put at undue risk of exposure to a virus that currently has no cure just so I can have a few hours of live sports during my work from home time.

Blake Snell, the 2018 Cy Young Award-Winning pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, made waves when he commented on his Twitch channel last week that playing an abbreviated baseball season with a pay cut was not worth the risk to his health for future seasons. Based on estimates of the proposals being negotiated between MLB management and the player’s union, Snell would earn around $2.3 million instead of $7 million in salary for playing what would amount to at best an 82-game season.

To be fair, athletes risk injury every time they take the field. However, one can certainly argue that risking your pitching arm and needing to miss a season because you are recovering from Tommy John surgery is entirely different than risking your health because of a virus.

Snell’s candid assessment of needing to look at his life after this season, versus playing this year and risking his health, drew the usual round of negative comments with people calling him “entitled,” and that he should just “shut up and play.”

After Blake Snell drew criticism for voicing concerns about returning to play baseball, fellow All-Star Bryce Harper noted that Snell made public feelings that many players are pondering in private in regards to the risk of playing baseball too soon to their long-term health.
photo R. Anderson

A pair of All-Stars, in Bryce Harper and Nolan Arenado, came to Snell’s defense by noting that Snell went public with what many players are thinking in private related to needing to look long and hard at the risks associated with returning to play baseball this year.

As part of a return to the ballpark plan reported by ESPN, players and all other people involved in the games would be tested for the COVID-19 virus several times a week to allow any potential outbreak to be snuffed out at the source. Under the plan to mitigate the spread of the virus , according to the ESPN report, players, would also be banned by fist bumping, high fiving, and spitting.

However, it is unknown whether players will still be allowed to bang on trash cans in the dugout. Too soon Astros fans?

MLB is targeting a return to play in early July. It is highly likely that the return will feature fireworks and other festive celebrations as the “Boys of Summer” play the National Pastime once more. Any return to play scenario needs to allow players to choose whether they want to return, or if they are willing to forfeit their salary in order to focus on their health for future seasons.

MLB is targeting a return to play in early July. It is highly likely that the return will feature fireworks and other festive celebrations as the “Boys of Summer” play ball once more.
photo R. Anderson

Assuming that MLB does the right thing and allows players to choose to sit out the season, that creates the question of why not just wait until next year to play at all.

Can an 82-game season with some of the top players on each team choosing to not play really be considered legitimate?

Of course, the answer, as it usually does, centers on money. Even without fans in the stands team owners and broadcast networks can make money on games.

Another footnote in the year of COVID-19 history book should not only include the day live major sports returned with NASCAR, but should also include the day that the MLB potentially chose finances over safety. Of course, that financial risk versus personal risk calculus is being performed across the globe as multiple industries look to reopen in the middle of a pandemic.

Millionaire baseball players aren’t the only ones who will need to perform a risk trade when it comes to returning to work. Employers at all levels need to be sensitive to the concerns raised by workers, and where possible accommodations need to be made to protect both their health and their jobs.

I miss going to see Swatson and the rest of the Sugar Land Skeeters. I look forward to a time when I am once again watching them from inside the ballpark.
photo R. Anderson

I am eternally grateful to the men and women working at the grocery store who bring my order out to my car and allow me the opportunity to stay safely socially distanced. Too often, some elements of society look down on workers in retail, transportation, healthcare and hospitality.

Society owes a huge debt to all of the people on the front lines. When the pandemic is over, the people who kept us safe, fed, and tended to health-wise, should be the first ones allowed inside the sporting venues as a show of thanks from a grateful nation.

Until then, sports leagues need to temper their enthusiasm for returning to play. We all miss sports. However, it would just take the death of one player to show that the risk was not worth it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my work from home fury coworkers are meowing for some kibble.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

COVID-19 puts the Sports World in an Extended Timeout

The world of professional baseball has been dark since March. Discussions are underway to return players to the ballparks in a shortened, fan-free season. Photo R. Anderson

Thanks to the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, for many people right now it feels like up is down, and down is up. The virus has also introduced new terms like, social distancing and contact tracing into our vocabularies. As part of its destructive path into everyday life COVID-19 has caused the world of sports to grind to a halt as player and fan safety was given the proper level of respect.

The COVID-19 outbreak tested leagues in a way that many sports had never experienced. Social distancing requirements, as well as limits on crowd size, led to the cancellations of the XFL, NBA, NHL and almost all other sports leagues. On April 10, 2020 the XFL announced it had suspended operations indefinitely and laid off all league employees due in part to financial losses as a result of COVID-19.

The Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo were delayed by at least a year. All NCAA spring sports tournaments, including the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were cancelled. Major League Baseball ended Spring Training early, and delayed the start of the season. The leagues that continued to hold competitions did so without fans in attendance as they tried to balance social responsibility with the public’s appetite for live sports.

With most major sports leagues shutdown due to COVID-19, sports fans looked for any port in the storm to quench their thirst for live competition. The American Cornhole League provided many fans with just such an outlet.
Photo R. Anderson

Before going any further, it is important to note that shutting down mass gatherings, like sporting events, was the right call.

One need only look at the amount of cases that spread out from a convention in Boston to know how quickly the virus can spread to know that mass gatherings are simply not prudent at this juncture. Even with social distancing, the number of cases, and the number of fatalities continue to rise. Were sports allowed to continue in full stadiums and arenas, there is little doubt that the case and death count would be much higher.

It should also be said that the inconvenience of not having live sports to watch is trivial compared to the real effects of COVID-19 that many people are facing across the world through losses of jobs and in extreme cases losses of loved ones.

Although the major sporting leagues have been shutdown for nearly two months, there are rumblings building to resume sports, albeit in empty stadiums without fans. NASCAR, which kept fans entertained through simulated races, is set to resume racing in empty tracks on May 17, 2020. Five years after the first game in Major League Baseball history was played in Baltimore without fans, MLB is negotiating with the player’s union to try to gain approval to host a truncated 82 game season in empty ballparks starting in July.

NASCAR is set to resume racing without fans in attendance on May 17, 2020. Time will tell whether the fans return for the Daytona 500 in February at Daytona International Speedway.
Photo R. Anderson

All of these efforts to resume sports without fans show a desire for the governing bodies of the respected sports to explore any and all means for the show to go on. This effort to resume is driven in large part so the leagues can recoup some sort of financial payday.

While a return to live sports on television, even sports without fans, would be welcomed by many, one has to ask whether leagues risk diminishing the product by forcing reduced schedules on fans and trying to call it a full season. Should a World Series Champion that only played an 82-game regular season be considered as talented as teams of the past who prevailed over the course of a season that was twice as long?

Additionally, as part of any discussion on the resumption of live sports one must also ask whether players are being put at undue risk by being asked to travel from city to city, and potential virus hot spot to hot spot, just so the show can go on in some form or fashion.

To be clear, like most sports fans, I miss being able to unwind at the end of the day by watching a game on television. However, I am not sure that I miss live sports enough that I am willing to support putting my favorite athletes potentially at risk of catching, or spreading, a virus that currently has no cure just so they can bring me a few hours of entertainment.

As professional sports look at ways to resume during the era of COVID-19 one has to wonder how exactly a football huddle with social distancing would look.
Photo R. Anderson

Aside from needing to address player safety as part of any path to resumed competition, leagues must also consider that airing games without fans leagues may hasten the trend of people choosing to watch games from the comfort of home versus battling thousands of people to get to a seat so far from the field that they are basically watching the game on the big screen anyway. Sure, the made for TV sports are better with screaming fans, but there is something to be said for watching at home where the snacks and the bathrooms are both a lot easier to get to.

With NASCAR and MLB looking to get their seasons going, the eyes of the world of sports turn their focus to football. Even if one accepts the prospect of empty football stadiums, it is hard to fathom how players could be in the trenches on the gridiron and not risk exposure to COVID-19.

Exactly how does one huddle with six-feet of separation? Even a scenario where players are wearing masks does not seem feasible. It is hard to think that a wide receiver can run full speed down the sideline wearing a N-95 mask under his face mask. The only possible solution would be to equip all player helmets with a clear shield that covers their mouth and nose, but even that is a stretch.

College Football is one of the sports on the bubble for a return based on a NCAA position on the need for students to be on campus before sports can resume.
Photo R. Anderson

College sports face their own hurdles for resuming in the fall. The NCAA has said that sports will not resume unless on campus classes have also resumed. The implication being that if the college is not deemed safe enough for students to be on, then the athletes should not be expected to have to play there.

There is too much money involved in college football to think that a work around of some sort will not be found to play games if the COVID-19 virus is still running rampant across the country come August. The topic of College Bowl Games and the College Football Playoffs is another issue that is bound to get a lot of attention in the coming months based on the millions of dollars at stake.

It is entirely possible that the sports landscape will never return to the levels that it was at before the world of sports was shut down by COVID-19. By adopting an attitude that everyone is in this together, those most impacted by the global timeout in sport can better weather the storm. It is crucial to keep in mind that the current situation is also only temporary.

Perhaps James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann in the movie Field of Dreams said it best when he said “People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Yes, baseball and other sports will resume at some point, and people will indeed come. How many people are allowed to come over the next few years based on social distancing remains to be seen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some masked competitive cornhole to watch on the Ocho followed by some lawnmower racing.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson