Earlier, we discussed comments from MLBPA Director Tony Clark indicating his union’s willingness and extreme flexibility to play some version of regular season baseball in 2020 at all costs: “Players want to play,” MLBPA Director Tony Clark said, per USA Today. “That’s what we do. Being able to get back on the field and being able to play, even if that means their fans are watching at home …. [Players are open to playing at neutral sites or in front of empty stadiums]. That possibility exists …. The opportunity to play in neutral sites is something both sides are willing to discuss.”
Indeed, nobody doubts the desire – of all sides – to get back out on the field. Among the apparently limiting factors, however, are these three criteria from the interim COVID-19 agreement between the league and players union.
In short, no regular season games will be played until …
- Medical experts determine games will not pose a risk to the health of players, staff, and spectators.
- There are no travel restrictions.
- Removal of legal restrictions on mass gatherings that would prevent games in front of spectators.
Well, before we get into the nuance that might ultimately ease our concerns, allow me to present a giant, scary hurdle, given the criteria above:
BREAKING: City of Toronto bans all public events until June 30.
— Tom Harrington (@cbctom) March 31, 2020
The city of Toronto – home of MLB’s Blue Jays (and the NBA’s Raptors) – has banned all public events (like baseball games) until all the way out on June 30th, the furthest such date I’ve seen for any major city yet this early in the process. There is obviously no game or amount of dollars more important than the health and safety of the people on this planet, but again, June 30th is one heck of a look forward from here, the final day of March.
So if MLB were to adhere strictly to the agreement they and the association signed, then there could conceivably be no regular season baseball – anywhere – until July 1st. Even if you had mentally prepared for that as some sort of moderately realistic, but disappointing outcome in a fluid and unpredictable situation such as this, the Toronto ban certainly makes things a bit more real/official.
With that said there are few important caveats. For one, Toronto can always adjust its plan, shortening the window as things (hopefully) get better, and it could all mean nothing in the end. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to lower expectations and surprise for the better, as opposed to the alternative, which is appreciably worse.
For another, it’s entirely possible – likely even – that we weren’t going to get regular season baseball until July anyway. And, of course, that doesn’t mean the league couldn’t start preparing/ramping up with whatever form of a fan-less Spring Training is necessary for players (and specifically pitchers) to get into regular season shape before then.
But perhaps most importantly, as Brett explained earlier, this agreement between the league and the union comes with a relatively big however:
Moreover, realistically, it’s unlikely mass gatherings are going to be permitted in every corner of the United States until much later in the year (if at all). So the big “however” I mentioned is, again, the possibility of playing in relocated settings and/or without fans in attendance. If the games can be played safely in that way, then the games may very well proceed for TV audiences, despite those three criteria not otherwise being met.
In other words, even if (or perhaps especially if) Toronto stands as the lone city still with a ban on public gatherings, baseball could potentially return (fan-less, or even at alternative sites). There’s no doubting the potential red tape with such a move, but I have to imagine the league and association will want to move forward if they can otherwise do so safely.
The frustrating and concerning reality is that this ban may, indeed, wind up necessary. And if that’s the case not only for Toronto, but for the rest of the country/continent, well, then, we’ll all have to readjust. But for now, I’m not going to freak out that this is going to hit baseball especially hard. It’s too early for that, and again, we may have already been on this track anyway.
UPDATE: Well, this is a somewhat confusing update, but it’s worth passing along …
IMPORTANT: Toronto's ban is exclusively city-led events. This does not affect NHL/NBA/etc. from returning.
City exec of the Mayor's office told me via email, when asked if this affects pro sports:
"No, (the Mayor) was speaking City permitted events like parades and festivals." https://t.co/pwlgcjW0OB
— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) March 31, 2020
Apparently, Toronto Mayor John Tory’s office later clarified in an email that the ban does not currently affect sporting events, but rather only city-permitted events like festivals and parades. “Sporting events don’t require permits, but the mass gathering order was issued by the province and they would need to address that aspect,” Tory’s office told said.
It’s not entirely clear how exactly this plays into the agreement between the league and the union, but I’d say this revelation is good news, if it’s anything at all.