At 3:05 p.m. March 26, the Baltimore Orioles were supposed to take the field against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards, and their 2020 season was to commence. We’ve known for two weeks that wouldn’t happen. No, not for the Orioles, not for the Yankees, nor any one of the other 28 teams.
First, MLB announced a delay until April 9. Then as this coronavirus horror show began to creep with fast legs across our country, MLB became convinced that there would be no way that baseball could start before mid-May.
And then came word from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in an interview with Scott Van Pelt on ESPN March 25 that if in fact it is deemed unsafe to start this season MLB is prepared to call off the season.
Given the opinion of Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro last weekend that the start of the season would need to be preceded by a month-long training schedule, that brought my opinion around to thinking we possibly could see an opener around the Fourth of July.
That late of a start begins to beg the question of just how long an MLB season would have to be for it to lead toward a meaningful fight for a championship.
The only other precedent that comes to mind is how MLB chose to handle the 1981 strike, which lasted from June 12-July 31. Baseball elected to start the second half of the season Aug. 9 with the All-Star Game, which had been scheduled for July 14 in Cleveland. (This year’s All Star game is scheduled for July 14 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.)
Regular-season action commenced the very next day (Aug. 10), and MLB decided on a playoff format that would include division winners from each half of the season. It’s important to remember that back in 1981 there were simply two divisions in each league. The National League had two six-team divisions, while the American League had two seven-team divisions.
So essentially, the league felt a first half of nine weeks followed by a second half that would last a bit more than seven weeks was enough to make the totality a worthwhile championship season.
In that season, there was no effort to mandate that each team would play the same number of games. In the second half of 1981, the Oakland Athletics played just 49 games, while the Blue Jays played just 48. However, all teams finished the total season with more than 100 games played.
The first- and second-half division winners were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. If the same team won both halves, the second-best overall record in the division would advance.
It was this format that ultimately became the template for the League Division Series and paved the way for wild cards to be dealt into the playoffs.
So, while March 26 was supposed to be the earliest Opening Day in the sport’s history, it now seems assured that the 2020 season, if played, will have the latest start date in the sport’s history.
But the money lost back in 1981 from June 12-Aug. 9 would be dwarfed by the losses today. In 1981, MLB lost 713 games, which equated to $146 million lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenue and concessions. The owners, for their part, lost $72 million.
Today’s losses would be staggering in comparison. But as the COVID-19 clock keeps on ticking, the 2020 season is very much at risk. Another Opening Day this year is beginning to seem like a dubious prospect.
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