Baseball’s biggest obstacle? It isn’t games, salaries or even the bumbling men in charge

Even if the owners and the union do reach a nuts-and-bolts accord, how are they supposed to put their heads together in earnest on a health crisis whose next moves are, to some extent, unknowable?

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MLB Still In Limbo Due To The Covid-19 Pandemic

A sign hangs outside Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Well, baseball is right back where it started.

Back at the intersection of COVID-19 and “what the hell do we do now?”

After weeks of nasty infighting between Major League Baseball and its players’ association, with percentages of prorated salaries and numbers of games being bandied about and accusations flying about bad-faith negotiating tactics, it turns out a pesky coronavirus pandemic remains the biggest obstacle of all to a 2020 season.

That’s the way it felt, anyway, after a Friday on which news broke that five players and three staff members working at the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla., had tested positive. Just a few miles away, in Dunedin, a member of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 40-man roster received a positive test result. Both teams closed their facilities.

In nearby Tampa, the NHL’s Lightning shut down their home facility after several positive tests among players. But this isn’t just a Gulf Coast issue. Ask the NFL teams in Dallas and Houston what they’re dealing with. Ask various college football programs dotting the map.

Ask anyone outside of the sports world, too. But that probably was needless to say.

Back to baseball, which gave off a whiff of real trouble on this front early in the week when a letter from MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem to MLBPA chief negotiator Bruce Meyer was obtained by the Associated Press.

“The proliferation of COVID-19 outbreaks around the country over the last week, and the fact that we already know of several 40-man roster players and staff who have tested positive, has increased the risk associated with commencing spring training in the next few weeks,” Halem wrote.

Remember, this was days before the news out of Clearwater, suggesting the “several” players to whom Halem referred are on different teams. As for the Phillies, they put out a statement that ended with this:

“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on [our] 2020 season, the club declines comment, believing it is too early to know.”

And that’s the crux of the biscuit, isn’t it? We don’t know.

Even though, for weeks, many of us have been acting otherwise. Or simply focusing on the wrong things.

Like expanded playoffs after a contracted postseason. Now that I think of it, what sense does that even make?

Or the universal designated hitter. Now that I think of that, maybe teams should just be happy if they have nine healthy guys worthy of grabbing a bat on a given day.

The coming season — if there is one — will be bizarre for a lot of reasons. A sprint of a regular season. The DH thing. And then there are the fans. It’s bad enough they won’t be in the stands for safety reasons, but do bumbling commissioner Rob Manfred, a bunch of babyish billionaire owners and, if you want to blame them, the players, too, have to turn fans off and push them away with so much roller-coaster rhetoric?

The two sides are close on games (between 60 and 70 for the regular season) and compensation (about $250 million apart in all). Dang it, there should have been a deal by now.

But there I go, focusing on the wrong things again.

It’s the coronavirus, stupid. (I was speaking to myself.)

Even if the owners and the union do reach accords on salary and schedule, how are they supposed to put their heads together in earnest on a health crisis whose next moves are, to some extent, unknowable? More bluntly, how are teams supposed to prepare to play when some guys are in quarantine and others might be headed there soon?

I’m beginning to doubt baseball can pull this off. One day, Manfred looked into a camera and guaranteed a season — “100%,” he said. A few days later, he morbidly used the word “disaster” to describe where the game was at and wasn’t even referring to the pandemic.

It’s not a disaster. It’s worse.

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