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MLB Faces Uncertainty as Coronavirus Crisis Continues

T-Mobile Park

With Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announcing a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle area amidst the coronavirus crisis, the scheduling of early-season Seattle Mariners home games is among the uncertainties facing MLB.

When MLB announced first steps in addressing the coronavirus crisis, the commissioner’s office added that no other changes to the regular season were being considered. That has changed quickly, however, as Inslee’s announcement comes with plenty of uncertainty still on the horizon.

There’s no doubt sports gatherings are being impacted across the globe, with Italian soccer matches being played before empty crowds and the beginning of the Japanese pro baseball season delayed. MLB announced two policy changes to address the coronavirus crisis: players were told to limit interactions with fans at spring training—no handshakes, no touching of items supplied by fans for autographs, like pens or cardsand the closing of clubhouses to the press. The warning about fan interaction is a major move; the closing of clubhouses a rather minor one. After announcing the clubhouse closing, MLB officials said no further measures were under consideration.

But that all changed yesterday, when it became apparent that more drastic measures would be needed. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned yesterday that Americans need to prepare for the day “when the infections will come, and they will come — sorry to say, sad to say — they will.” Large gatherings—say, the 40,000 or so folks showing up for a Major League Baseball game—are being targeted by local officials. California’s Santa Clara County has temporarily banned gatherings larger than 1,000 people, and the NHL’s San Jose Sharks are looking whether to play upcoming games at SAP Center before an empty house or move the games to a neutral site.

Among the most highly contagious parts of the country include Washington state, hit hard by the coronavirus virus. Today Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties on gatherings larger than 250 people through at least the end of March—a mandate that will impact professional soccer and the Mariners, who were set to open the home season on March 26, with the Texas Rangers visiting T-Mobile Park. With the ban in place, the Mariners may end up switching a series with the Rangers and play their opener in Texas, where a new ballpark will be open for play, while a March 30-April 1 home series against the Minnesota Twins figures to be affected.

The Mariners issued a statement Wednesday saying that they would work with MLB to create alternative plans for games through at least the end of March, but did not announce specifics:

Following Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s announcement this morning that he is banning large group events through March, the Seattle Mariners are working with the Major League Baseball Office of the Commissioner on alternative plans for our games that were scheduled for the end of March at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.

While we hope to be back to playing baseball in Seattle as soon as possible, the health and safety of our community is the most important consideration.

We will provide more information about our plans for the games as it becomes available.

No announcement has been made yet on the status of those games, but MLB officials are looking at switching series to less-affected markets or keeping teams in Arizona spring-training ballparks for opening series. Right now, it doesn’t sound like playing games at empty ballparks or cancelling games are yet serious options.

We could see additional state action to shut down large gatherings, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom questioning whether MLB did enough by just banning reporters from clubhouses. “I found it quite curious and I mean this with respect … The four major organizations — NHL, soccer, Major League Baseball and the NBA put out guidelines to protect their athletes but not their fans,” Newsom told the San Jose Mercury News. “I think they owe you and their fan base an answer as to why it’s more important to keep reporters away from their players in the locker room than fans” from other fans in “highly contagious parts of the country.” As of now, the San Francisco Giants are looking at moving Oracle Park exhibition games scheduled for the last week of March to their spring-training home in Scottsdale, while the A’s may need to shift exhibition games and a season-opening series as well: right now the Alameda County Public Health Department is recommending against gatherings, but it doesn’t have the force of an order—yet.

The problem with switching series is that you may quickly run out of markets where large gatherings are not banned. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already set up a coronavirus containment area in suburban New York City’s New Rochelle area, as the state now hosts the highest number of confirmed cases in the country. If the virus spreads, there will surely be talk of expanding a containment area into New York City, affecting both the Yankees and the Mets.

This is a highly fluid situation, as more information is released daily and better data on infections coming once more testing kits hit the market. But with the number of confirmed numbers increasing daily and public-health officials warning that the worst is still to come, it’s inevitable that the beginning of the MLB season will be impacted by government attempts to contain the coronavirus epidemic.

Image courtesy Seattle Mariners. 

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

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