There was a time when former MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn thought it was inevitable that baseball would follow the lead of the NFL’s Super Bowl and schedule its showcase event, the World Series, at a neutral site.
He may finally be right.
And, given the bizarre conditions and circumstances that have surrounded this year, it would seem almost natural to conclude the “all virtual” 2020 season with a World Series without a home team — if in fact MLB can get that far under the guidelines currently in place, which still may not be as much of a guarantee as you might believe.
At the rate MLB postponed games during the first five weeks of a shortened 60-game season severely impacted by the coronavirus, it would seem to be virtually impossible to complete the postseason outside of a “bubble” format.
When the NBA and NHL stepped out of the box to create isolated locations for the final games of their regular seasons plus the playoffs, MLB went “outside the bubble,” so to speak. The gamble was that baseball could keep 30 teams healthy enough to play a 60-game schedule in geographically arranged divisions — and produce a 16-team playoff field.
In the process, MLB instituted various “one-and-done” measures, like placing a runner on second at the start of any extra inning; seven-inning games in the event of doubleheaders, and expanded rosters that included about 30 players at each team’s “alternate” training site. There were also strict guidelines put in place to protect each player’s health — and, well-intentioned though they were, this is where MLB ran into a problem it couldn’t control.
Whereas the NBA and NHL have been able to avoid postponements while “playing in the bubble,” MLB could not survive its first weekend without shutting down four teams because of positive COVID-19 tests.
MLB missed the mark when it came to the mantra of any contending team — “next man up” — despite each team having the equivalent of 30 alternate players, presumably to serve as backup players. The number of postponements now makes it obvious those squads have been used as much for minor league player development as for physical injury, which in most cases did not include players who had tested positive for the virus.
There are a lot of reasons why it wasn’t practical for MLB to attempt to play a 60-game schedule within a bubble, even if there were multiple venues. But there are even more reasons why it has to be considered for postseason play, where as few as four sites would be sufficient to satisfy whatever is left of the integrity of the schedule — and baseball’s obligation to the television networks (not necessarily in that order).
Team schedules have been compromised enough already by the avalanche of postponements that have resulted in a rash of seven-inning doubleheaders. At one point, the St. Louis Cardinals had played 14 fewer games than division rival Cincinnati, a startling imbalance. MLB won’t be able to reschedule games on the fly in the postseason like it has during the regular season.
There have been entire series of two or three games postponed because one player tested positive, something that couldn’t — or shouldn’t — have been foreseen when this crazy abbreviated season started. Instead, one might have expected tracing and sanitizing would be daily occurrences that would permit the schedules to go uninterrupted.
This is not to minimize the health of the players. It was a significant part of the negotiations between MLB and the Players Association, as it should have been. But it shouldn’t have been expected that one positive test could so disrupt a schedule.
It was a long time ago, during the Orioles’ trip to Japan in 1984, that Kuhn, a lame-duck commissioner keeping the seat warm for Peter Ueberroth, was asked if he ever thought baseball would go to a neutral site for the World Series.
“It is only a matter of time,” he said, noting that the furor about not having a participating city host the Super Bowl died out in a few years and that baseball had no desire to play games on Halloween. However, even with an influx of all-weather facilities and the fact that baseball has experienced Halloween and beyond, there has never been the push Kuhn anticipated for a neutral-site World Series.
This year, under virtual conditions without any significant home-field advantage, there is no reason for the World Series to be anywhere other than a neutral site. It would seem to be a natural finish to baseball’s first (and only?) version of the Sweet 16.
Not quite the way Bowie Kuhn envisioned it almost four decades ago, but with a lot less controversy.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/Gary Sousa/PressBox