Major League Baseball has steered championship seasons through natural disasters, world wars, a devastating domestic terror attack and an array of self-inflicted wounds, including multiple work stoppages.
Little wonder, then, that it might believe it can pull off a particularly ambitious and somewhat diabolical gambit: A pop-up city in a pandemic, requiring the sequestration and cooperation of nearly 10,000 people.
MLB and the union’s very preliminary discussions about staging a season within Phoenix’s Chase Field and surrounding stadiums was met with significant resistance after details emerged Monday and Tuesday, with the country now grappling with 10,000 COVID-19-related deaths amid a shortage of medical personnel and equipment.
Thirty teams playing 15 games a day in the Phoenix area would require the use of Chase Field, college ballparks and spring training stadiums, such as American Family Fields in Maryvale. (Photo: Ralph Freso, Getty Images)
Additionally, the concept of sequestering players and staff for some four months creates a litany of complications, ethical, logistical and otherwise.
As a continental sports shutdown nears the one-month mark, the best answer for epidemiologists projecting the near-term future of the industry remains, “I don’t know.”
Yet MLB and its players must move forward with hypotheticals. An entire season and nearly $11 billion of industry revenue is at stake, and the Arizona option, or something like it, may, weeks from now, remain on the table.
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And just how difficult would it be to create Baseballville, AZ, a pandemic-proof utopia in these dystopian times?
In conversations with league officials, television executives and medical experts, USA TODAY Sports aimed to provide an answer, one that may be best paraphrased from the Oscar-nominated 2011 movie, "Moneyball."
It’s incredibly hard.
Baseball players and personnel are always on the move; hotel life would be nothing new , save for the fact that this stint would be four months, an eon longer than even the 40 or so days of spring training.
And in this scenario, we’re talking about 30 teams on the road, all the time.
In more typical circumstances, major league teams occupy about 55 hotel rooms for its traveling staff. But in Baseballville, entire franchises would be relocated for a long haul.
That would require a traveling party of 100 or more, starting with at least 50 players who are active or at the ready.
A dozen members of the coaching staff. Team physicians and trainers, strength and conditioning personnel, public relations, video, clubhouse attendants and a handful of essential front office employees – all into the baseball containment zone.
That’s 3,000 people right there – a conservative estimate before factoring in injuries, potential trades and the overall churn in a season of at least 100 games.
Want to play a game – or 15 of them?
Even with a skeleton crew, that would require another 50 people to stage a ballgame.
Four umpires. An official scorer, a gaggle of people to ensure StatCast and Gamecast and replay review and so many other services get out to the masses. At least four bus drivers to get clubs from hotel to stadium.
And then stadium operations – a number that may vary significantly given that some games would be played at Chase Field and the rest at spring training or collegiate parks of varying size.
Even with no fans inside, security and logistics and lights and the grounds crew must go on, so we’ll establish an average of 25 people per site. With MLB planning an ambitious, compact schedule, it’s presumed 15 stadiums would be needed with so many full-slate days on the docket.
So, with 50 people at 15 sites to get the games on, there’s another 750 folks into the mix.
Want to watch on TV, or stream on your device?
Herein lies MLB and the players’ greatest motivation for this exercise: Billions of dollars in TV revenue. The product would certainly look odd coming mostly from spring training sites, but Chase Field creates a stage for national-caliber broadcasts. With a country still largely bound to home, a paucity of competition from live sporting events and an eventually barren inventory from streaming options, the ratings could be strong.
And the games would need to look as good as possible on television.
That would require a minimum of 35 people per site – camera crews, announcers, personnel to man the production trucks, invaluable production assistants. Presumably, MLB would arrange for network-agnostic crews to post up at every site, but each team would want its own talent for regional broadcasts. Radio booths would require less – as few as three people per team, including an on-site producer.
In this conservative scenario, external media would be booted out of the population (Zoom press conferences, anyone?) but the thirst for coverage would be strong. So throw in a pool photographer in each photo well and a pair of MLB-employed social media mavens to bring the game closer to those confined to home.
There’s another 45 people to bring you the content you love. From Surprise to downtown to Mesa, that’s another 675 people.
MLB, meanwhile, would want to keep a watchful eye on this unprecedented time and exert as much control over the health. So let’s conservatively add a half-dozen commissioner’s office employees and 15 doctors to work in conjunction with team medical staff to facilitate testing and monitor player health.
So, we have our players, and our staff, and our officials and our stadium workers and the many, many people behind the scenes that make the magic of baseball happen.
The grand, and very conservative, total: 4,425 presumably coronavirus-free, motivated and isolated employees.
And that’s before they are housed and fed.
The dome within the dome
According to the Phoenix Business Journal, the five largest hotels in the city – the Sheraton Grand Phoenix, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Arizona Grand Resort and Spa and Westin Kierland Resort and Spa – would almost cover us. Those properties together have 4,176 rooms, enough for our personnel as well as some churn.
Throw in one more 500-room property and we would be accommodated.
Now, what about the workers in those hotels?
On a typical day, according to the Phoenix Business Journal, those five huge hotels utilize 3,810 employees. Certainly, a decent number of those can be lopped off – no need for, say, the sales department to be around with the hotel at capacity for four months, and the spas and salons and other non-essential services could be shuttered.
Yet it also provokes another question: Do these employees stay in their own service-worker bio dome? (Which would also need to be staffed.) Or do they leave the quarantined population and return to their homes, opening themselves up to exposure from family members who, presumably, have their own jobs out in the unsealed, non-baseball world?
Let’s say we need 2,000 workers to make these accommodations function, to provide the players two meals per day (the third, presumably, at the ballpark) and clean their rooms and make sure the ceiling’s not leaking and the WiFi robust.
That’s a significant number of employees being asked to stay away from their families.
Oh, and these workers, who have not the safety net of millions or billions of dollars, also have their own unions.
Given the churn in the service industry, Baseballville would have one of two choices: Pay the support staff wages significant enough to ensure they stay in the population – or be prepared to add hundreds more employees to the mix.
A functioning society?
At this stage in the pandemic, Americans are dying from COVID-19 at such a rapid rate that many are not tested for it before they succumb. Multiple ESPN reports said public health officials and MLB and NBA executives indicated a rapid and widespread test could be available not long after the time large gatherings may be held (no earlier than May 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
For now, the gap between the current reality and a utopian world where tests are so available that we can lavish them on asymptomatic entertainers remains huge. And merely intaking the population at the start of this exercise will be fraught with peril.
“The players themselves are coming from different cities and parts of the country. So, what’s the arrangement?” asks Gary Slutkin, former director of intervention development at the World Health Organization. “We’re under-realizing what is required to show that anything is safe. And what is required to show that anything is safe is that new cases are rare and that the health department can squash any single new case from spreading further.
“No (region) is showing it enough to be able to change the way that daily life is, and sporting events are a far shot from daily life. They’re basically high-risk spreading situations. So many things would have to be controlled in terms of where the players lived, how often they were tested, the requirements for how the locker room works, how the support staff work, where they live.”
And it’s not like the coronavirus doesn’t exist in Arizona, which reported 2,726 confirmed cases and 80 deaths as of Wednesday. Importing 5,000 people, none of them working from home and all of them traveling to every corner of the Valley, won’t help matters.
Finally, there is the health and well-being of players, who would have to exit the population for essential life events such as the birth of a child. Mike Trout, Gerrit Co and Zack Wheeler are among the more prominent players who fall in this category during the 2020 season.
MLB would consider integrating players’ families into the mix, according to The Athletic, a humane gesture but one that would further increase all the numbers listed above.
The coming weeks may render all of this moot. MLB will continue taking its cues from public health organizations, and all rational parties realize that ultimately, the virus itself will drive any return to normalcy.
In the meantime, the league and its players must consider the many gray areas that will be a hallmark of our eventual reality. Returning to play won’t be easy, under any circumstances.
And in this one, where a baseball city-state of nearly 10,000 would rise, the challenges would be immense.
Contributing: Nancy Armour
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