Wojo: MLB plan to return is fascinating but also fraught with peril

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s provocative, perhaps even promising. Major League Baseball has a plan to return, complete with an enticing timetable. It’s a glimmer in America’s sports-less landscape, an 82-game schedule that would begin around July 4.

The owners approved the proposal Monday. That’s a start.

The players will receive the proposal Tuesday and debate it. That’s the difficult part, reaching agreement on a spate of safety and financial issues.

Tigers games at Comerica Park would be played without fans, at least initially.

And then, of course, the sobering part: Nothing happens unless the virus approves it.

Until medicine and science and societal behavior make it reasonably safe, everything is speculative. But this is the first substantive plan by any major sport, pro or college, to be endorsed, confirming baseball’s intentions to play are very strong. So are the game’s intentions to recoup lost revenue, and that’s where it will get contentious with the players association.

Be careful, this still could get nasty. But for a moment, feel free to consider the stirring possibilities.

Sprint to the playoffs

According to multiple reports, games would be played in the regular ballparks, if local health guidelines permit, with a wild, contracted sprint that ends in an expanded playoff, 14 teams instead of 10. The stadiums would be devoid of fans, at least initially. Teams mostly would play their division rivals, giving the sport a distinctly regional feel. For instance, the bulk of the Tigers’ schedule would feature AL Central foes Minnesota, Kansas City, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox.

The only other games would be cross-divisional matchups: AL Central versus NL Central, AL East versus NL East, etc. The American and National Leagues would remain intact, and because there’d be inter-league play, everyone would use the designated-hitter rule (thank goodness).

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If it works, it could be fascinating. Lots of familiar opponents competing almost daily, after about a two-week “spring training” in Florida and Arizona, or even in their home parks. Teams not expected to contend — ahem, the Tigers — suddenly could find themselves in the race with one hot streak in September.

The imagery is strong — national pastime returns right around the nation’s birthday. You just hope the imagery isn’t merely imagination.

There are hurdles, lots of them, to make it feasible. Owners want to tie the players’ pay to a 50-50 revenue split, in lieu of salaries, an unprecedented move in the only pro sport without a salary cap. That would give the owners shared risk as revenue plummets due to the absence of fans. Players already agreed in March to be paid on a pro-rated basis and have shown no inclination to revisit it. Union chief Tony Clark has said they won’t agree to revenue-sharing, calling it a form of a salary cap.

Without fans in the stands, the safety issue is directly trained on the players, managers and support staff. Players have expressed their concerns, understandably. They have families to be around, unless they opt for quarantining. They’re taking the bulk of the health risk, and they want that as dutifully bargained as any financial issue.

Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle took to Twitter on Monday and laid out the pertinent questions.

“Bear with me, but it feels like we've zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season,” Doolittle wrote. “So how many tests do we need to safely play during a pandemic? And not just tests for players. Baseball requires a massive workforce besides the players.”

Those are the unanswered questions, and perhaps the unanswerable questions. As a baseball fan, you probably wish the owners and players would just sit down and hammer out a plan to play ball already.

No easy solutions

It’s not that simple for any business, certainly not one as expansive and expensive as baseball. What happens if one player tests positive? Does the entire team get shut down? Does he sit out and someone else comes up? The rosters are expected to expand from 26 to 30, necessary because the minor leagues wouldn’t be operational without fans.

There are deeper issues. What if testing isn’t readily available for the rest of the public? How often should players be tested? How many resources should logically be devoted to baseball? Beyond the emotional ties to the game, can society choose baseball over other essential and nonessential endeavors?

“Hopefully these concerns will be addressed in MLB's proposal, first and foremost,” Doolittle wrote. “1) what's the plan to ethically acquire enough tests? 2) what's the protocol if a player, staff member, or worker contracts the virus? We want to play. And we want everyone to stay safe.”

It seems nothing will ever be perfectly safe or easy again in the pandemic era. Unfortunately, the crisis produces combatants, each side digging in, with most disagreements centered on health concerns versus economic concerns. Baseball is no different, and the sport’s history of discontent between owners and players isn’t immune to the virus.

With a clear, concise plan, baseball could lead the way for basketball and hockey, and then in the fall, for football. It’s a huge responsibility, larger than just playing games. Sometime in the next month or so, baseball has a chance to show us what’s still possible, or impossible. It’ll take more than a glimmer of hope, but for now, that’s all we’ve got.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski