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One reason why a quarantined baseball season could be a big win for MLB

The first thing anybody waiting for baseball to start has to accept is that there will be no “normal.” We passed normal a couple weeks ago when the COVID-19 cases were piling up in places like New York, Louisiana and Florida. Normal isn’t happening. Not this year.

In baseball circles, the biggest question is when we’ll see a 2020 Major League Baseball season. That is, if we’ll see one. The rest of the particulars are secondary — How many games? Fans or no fans? What will the postseason look like?

The real answer is that nobody knows right now. It’s all about making contingency plans and seeing which one fits when it looks like we can safely play baseball again. We’ve talked about everything from a World Series in December to a Fourth of July opening day.

At this point, nearly two weeks into what would have been a baseball season, all of it sounds good. We’re all just thirsty for baseball.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic recently floated another possibility that’s being discussed: Playing a quarantined league in Arizona (or possibly Florida) in front of no fans. All 30 teams would keep their players and staff quarantined and play at spring training sites. The NBA and Premier League are reportedly pondering similar ideas.

Such a plan would come with dozens of questions — from whether you quarantine production staff to how much the players should get paid if there aren’t fans buying tickets — but it would accomplish two very basic things: Players could play and baseball fans would have something to watch. It wouldn’t be “normal” but it would close enough.

There’s another potential win here, and it could be huge for baseball: For a sport that’s been slowly losing its grip on a once-loyal audience, a captive and hungry group of sports fans could be what baseball needs to become America’s Pastime again.

Could MLB return without fans? That's one idea. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

What a quarantined baseball season looks like

In his story about the possibility of a quarantined season, Rosenthal admits the idea comes with many hurdles. But there’s at least some hope that baseball could play a “restorative” role. Rosenthal writes:

The season, at least initially, could be played in Florida or more likely Arizona, where spring training parks are more concentrated. But the logistics of quarantining 30 teams in one area would be extremely complex and potentially controversial, sources say, requiring local, state and federal government cooperation and resources that might be necessary to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Baseball is a secondary concern at a time when thousands in the U.S. are dying from COVID-19. The possibility of the sport returning this summer in stadiums open to fans appears increasingly remote. But if the season could be played safely in empty parks, without disrupting efforts to save lives, the sport could play a restorative role for the country, as it did during World War II and after 9/11.

Is that worth the challenges a quarantined baseball presents, though? Putting together a baseball season is much bigger than just having dozens of players and a handful of coaches showing up at ballparks every day. As Rosenthal explains, the challenges start to stack up:

To play under quarantine, the sport would need to protect the health not only of players and other club personnel, but also umpires and those producing the television broadcasts, plus hotel workers, bus drivers and anyone else involved with the players and games.

“Your margin of error is so small,” one baseball official said.

As an example, the official cited the possibility of a hotel worker going home, catching the virus and bringing it back into the baseball environment the next day. The effect might be similar to what occurs on a cruise ship. Infections would spread rapidly, and the sport again would need to shut down.

Diverting resources from health care would be another concern. Baseball would need to conduct wide-ranging testing for the virus, isolate anyone who gets sick and provide proper medical attention. Such an effort would require outside assistance, the kind of resources the league could not justify drawing away from the general population in the middle of a public health crisis.

In the grand scheme of public health, that’s probably enough risk right now that this isn’t a feasible alternative to just delaying the season. But there could come a time, when the curve has flattened and when fewer risks surround everyday life, when a quarantined league becomes a reasonable idea.

And that’s when baseball might have a big opportunity in front of it.

All eyes on baseball?

From here on in this hypothetical, let’s just assume that everything in America is going well enough that playing baseball doesn’t pose a large public health risk. In that case, baseball has a chance to reclaim some of the glory it has lost to football, basketball and other sports. At least until fans start flooding back into stadiums and the NFL is king again.

Imagine a sports world where baseball is the only thing happening. All those fans who just tune in for Game 7s or high-leverage October tilts, you know they’d be watching. All those people who don’t even identify as baseball fans, but who are thirsty for live sports? They’d be watching.

All those people who turned to marble racing, video-game simulations or Rex Chapman’s Twitter feed to get their fix? They’d quickly learn how to pronounce Ronald Acuña Jr. They’d fall in love with Juan Soto’s batter’s box shuffle. They’d realize just how good Mike Trout is and how tough it is to hit Gerrit Cole. And they’d probably boo the Astros from the comfort of their own home.

It’s a moment baseball needs, quite honestly. The game is economically healthy, but its place in sports culture isn’t nearly as healthy. Baseball’s grip on America’s sports fans has been loosening since the 1994 strike, through the steroid era and into the rise of the NFL and fantasy football.

Baseball doesn’t have to compete with just other sports these days, but everything that commands our attention — from time-wasting smartphone games to a seemingly limitless number of streaming entertainment options on our TVs and tablets.

A quarantined baseball league might be the spotlight opportunity that MLB needs to re-connect with fans it has lost or engage with a younger demographic that may have never wanted to sit through a baseball game before.

Nothing like a captive audience, right?

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