Will a Global Pandemic Goose a Global Major League Baseball?

Pandemic restrictions are easing across most of the U.S. Workplaces of all types, big and small, public and private, are scrambling to figure out the immediate future, yet also have to think ahead to the long-term lessons of the shutdown. It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate that the massive expansion of teleworking, home delivery of essential goods like groceries and medications, and other expedients will turn out to have lasting appeal for millions of Americans—consumers and producers, workers and managers and owners. The pandemic will have been a gigantic, impromptu pilot project, working out the kinks of new ways of living and working that were waiting for their moment.

The sports business doesn’t jump to mind in this regard. For one thing, virtually nothing is happening. The experimentation taking place in less expendable parts of the economy are absent in big time sports, which haven’t even sputtered along in low gear. The NCAA was the first to pull the plug, canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments after briefly considering holding contests in empty arenas. In short order, the Summer Olympics were postponed for (knock on wood) one year, and the professional leagues in all the major sports called their activity to a dead halt even while holding out hope that their seasons might be at least partially salvaged. ESPN has been a bit like a government in exile, desperate for something meaningful to do. Over on Fox Sports, Joe Buck set about his irrepressible play-by-play of barnyard chickens pecking at their morning feed, air traffic controllers bobbing on the tarmac, and a guy staring out a window.

One hot stove league that fans do have, if you can call it that, is all about the contingencies for a resumption of play in the various sports. Although most of the discussions are behind the scenes, some of the scenarios have gotten a good airing in the media, none more so than Major League Baseball’s “Arizona Plan,” reports of which first emerged in early April. The Arizona Plan called for holding all MLB games in the Phoenix area—at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks’ ballpark, and at nearby spring training venues. Players and other essential personnel would live in some form of isolation, if not actual quarantine, at local hotels. Variations on the plan had the major league clubs split into two groups, one based in Phoenix and one in St. Petersburg, Florida; or into three groups, with Arlington, Texas added to the mix.

In essence, the Arizona Plan adapted the Olympic model for Major League Baseball. Competition would occur not at the 30 ballparks of the American League and National League clubs across the U.S. and Canada, but at a cluster of venues in and around a single host city, Phoenix, which was chosen for the facilities and conveniences it can provide. This concept is alien to professional baseball as all Americans alive today, or even their grandparents, have ever known it. To find anything remotely like it, you have to go back to the game’s infancy, in the mid-19th Century, when entrepreneurs rented out recreational lands they owned, like Brooklyn’s Union Grounds and Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, to be the sites of games between the ball clubs that were springing up in the region. By the time the National League was formed, in 1876, the practice we use today was already firmly in place. Now as then, all teams own or lease a field of their own; they play half of their games there and they go on the road to opponents’ fields for the other half.

MLB has shelved the Arizona Plan for now and tentatively aims to have the truncated season’s games played at home ballparks, although some form of the plan may well be the fall-back if distancing and other public health requirements rule out home diamonds. Nothing is decided, everything is in a constantly churning black box of imponderables and debatables. If you spot a Vegas line that you like on one of the various possibilities, don’t wait, grab it.

What you won’t find is any action on a wager looking beyond Covid-19, one saying that the Arizona Plan will live on after the pandemic’s all-clear has sounded.

No surprise there. Who would take that bet? What could make anyone think that, once the crisis is in the rear view mirror, MLB would do anything but crumple up the whole Arizona Plan concept and get happily back to normal? Big league clubs are not like top golfers, tennis players, or race car drivers, free-floating and homeless. They are closely identified with their cities or metropolitan regions and they perform in a grand edifice, a home ballpark, that adorns both city and team—a proud, emphatic monument of the symbiosis of the two. This is more true of ballparks than it is of even NFL stadiums and NBA arenas, as beloved as football and basketball franchises may be in a town. Here in Baltimore, for example, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is far more a point of civic pride, and renowned as a jewel of the city’s comeback, than the adjacent M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens’ well-designed but (like football stadiums everywhere) largely utilitarian home. What could make MLB consider permanently shifting games from beloved bastions like Oriole Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium to centralized, neutral sites? Would it risk squandering the success, tradition, and fan loyalty that it has built during a century and a half of keeping The Show inside great urban temples of the cult of the home team and home town?

It just might.

The whole issue turns on one question: how serious is MLB about going global?

Baseball’s leaders have talked the global talk for some time now, especially since Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015. Action has begun to pick up as well. The Red Sox and Yankees faced off in London in June 2019 in the first two games (discounting exhibitions) ever played by American professional ball clubs in Europe, an event that MLB senior vice-president Jim Small called a “lightning bolt” for internationalizing the big league game. [1] That series was one of four in which NL and AL teams appeared in stadiums abroad—in Tokyo and Monterrey as well as London—during the 2019 season. All told, eight games were played outside of the U.S. and Canada, more than in the previous 10 seasons combined. Meanwhile, with much fanfare, MLB has established a network of academies in China and has laid plans for similar outreach in India, where cricket skills abound and—such is the hope—could be readily adapted for the diamond. The idea of an international draft also has strong support among baseball executives, including Manfred, and may be implemented as early as 2021.

As impressive as all this sounds, MLB has been candid about the limited scope of its international aspirations. They are entirely about marketing to foreign audiences an American sport played in America, not about expanding the major leagues across the oceans and admitting franchises worldwide. MLB has academies in China in hopes that a few baseball versions of Yao Ming will come play in St Louis or Seattle or Philadelphia and be watched devotedly on television by millions of Chinese, some of whom will also buy team hats and jerseys. Another new revenue stream, not a true global game, is the not-so-gaudy ring that Manfred and his brain trust aim to snare.

You can be sure that they didn’t lower their sights this way because they wanted to. MLB leadership knows that the potential of foreign lands as fan incubators and cash cows will never get beyond certain modest thresholds as long as those countries have no ball clubs of their own in the big league mix. Several nations could, without a doubt, support such teams. The talent, the experience, the popular enthusiasm, the infrastructure, and the knowledgeable media are already available—not in the places, like China and Europe, that are MLB’s missionary territory, but in countries where the religion of baseball is well established, with deep, durable roots. In the Far East, that means Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Australia and the Philippines. In Latin America, baseball is as much at home as it is in the U.S., and the superb talent level needs no more proof than the sounds of Spanish coming out of every major league locker room and the heavy presence of Latin Americans throughout the 30 organizations, from rookie league up. On Opening Day 2019, big league rosters included 102 players from the Dominican Republic, 68 from Venezuela, and 19 from Cuba, to name the top three countries of origin of players not born in the U.S. [2] Little Curacao, with a population of just 161,000 (about the size of Chattanooga or Vancouver), has averaged close to four players in the major leagues every year since 2000, meaning that during that span there have been, per capita, more than eight times as many Curacaoans as Americans in the bigs. [3]

Nor is politics the sticking point to overseas expansion. Politics may present hurdles in certain countries, but American business has almost always found a way to penetrate foreign markets when the economic incentives are sweet enough, regardless of frictions between governments. Cuba is the stark exception because of the economic embargo that was first placed on the regime of (mythical but, sadly, not real major league pitching prospect) Fidel Castro way back in 1960. The bad apple that is Cuban-U.S. relations, however, should hardly spoil things for the whole world, even if the Trump Administration’s neo-Cold War measures against Havana, along with its jingoistic policies towards other Latin American countries, are not soon reversed by a different President.

The real obstacle to a global MLB is the one erected by a far more formidable power than the U.S. Government: the laws of physics. The planet is a big place, too big for any future worldwide MLB if it is going to operate like the existing one. In the 1950s, it was the advent of reliable, routine passenger air travel that allowed the major leagues to establish a presence beyond the eastern third of the continental United States. No longer constrained by railroad timetables, franchises could realistically move to cities as remote from the eastern seaboard as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in all the territory in between. The airliners that whisk teams from series to series today may make the prop-planes that carried Ted Williams and Duke Snyder and Alvin Dark look quaint, but the difference is minor for purposes of the sport’s practical boundaries. The three time zones that separate the West Coast ball clubs from their competitors in the metropolises of the East are still the limit to what the ingenuity of traveling secretaries and the biological clocks of players can accommodate. Unless and until teleportation becomes a reality, the idea of major league clubs routinely bouncing back and forth between North America and distant continents will remain sci-fi.

So why bounce around? At some point, it is sure to dawn on the Lords of Baseball that the Arizona Plan, or something very much like it, offers the solution that technology cannot. Ball clubs from Boston and Washington, Caracas and Mexico City, Yokohama and Seoul can all compete in a unitary, worldwide MLB if they play at a cluster of venues at a single neutral location or, better, at a few such locations.

This approach need not and assuredly would not spell the end of home field games, a prospect that would get a hail of rotten eggs from fans (including me) and horrify the affected cities. Current major league ballparks would not become white elephants, forlornly awaiting the wrecking ball. They would be key components in a system that also includes the neutral sites. The imaginations and creativity of people savvy about the business and logistics of baseball can devise all manner of options for organizing leagues and devising season schedules around such a system. Perhaps, in addition to the National and American Leagues, MLB would include a Pacific Rim and a Latin American League. Interleague play could occur at the neutral sites for two fixed periods during the season, maybe 3 weeks each, totaling a quarter of the schedule. All other play would be at home ballparks, no different than today.

This system would require momentous changes affecting everyone associated with baseball, the most conservative of the major sports and not one that readily sacrifices old habits and traditions. It would not, however, amount to a lopsided swap of so much that is tried and true for the single desideratum of global play. For the 30 existing ball clubs and their backers, there would be any number of advantages as compared with MLB’s current structure and schedule. The neutral locations would be meccas for vacationers who love baseball, much as spring training’s Cactus and Grapefruit League sites are now, only far more so. Aggregate gate revenue, which is more important in baseball than in pro football and basketball, would probably go up despite each team’s loss of about 20 home dates. Division of the total gate for the neutral locations could be made equal for all clubs, helping address the competitive imbalance problem caused by disparate revenue and payrolls. Overall team travel would be reduced, a blessing for players and a savings for franchises. Players would enjoy two extended periods during the long season when they could stay put and recharge. In many cases, their families would be able to join them. Umpires, league officials, scouts, media members, and other personnel would also spend less time in airports and more at game sites. The 30 teams’ carbon footprint would shrink significantly.

Is all this kooky talk? Haven’t MLB’s leaders already demonstrated that they are content to keep their investment in global competition confined to the pale imitation of soccer’s World Cup called the World Baseball Classic—a foundling that came their way when the Olympics dropped baseball? Are they really going to change their attitude now of all times, when globalism is fraying and international institutions are battered by isolationism, protectionism, and nativism? I’m not here to predict that they will, or advocate that they do. (Personally, I’m more interested in seeing MLB take certain steps backwards, not forward, as I’ve written before. [4] )But it’s well to remember that innovations, once dreamed up, have a way of planting seeds in the minds of baseball executives that come to fruition down the road, in new and altered circumstances. Such was the destiny, for example, of early, discarded proposals for domed stadiums, the designated hitter, and interleague play.

If the concept behind the Arizona Plan does have a post-pandemic future, it might unfold along the lines that I’ve outlined above, but it might do so in some entirely different way—one that might have nothing to do with global baseball. A group of cities in the U.S. and Canada that have tried and failed to land major league franchises—places like Buffalo, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Montreal, Nashville, and Portland—might decide to establish their own league, the first attempt to challenge the AL and NL since the Continental League was organized in 1959. Rather than asking taxpayers to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into new ballparks and related infrastructure upgrades in each home town, the clubs might remember the Arizona Plan’s concept and agree to play their games at one location with multiple venues as the rebel league gets off the ground. Striking out on their own and relying on television and baseball tourism, they would be spared MLB’s old tactic of bait and switch with supplicant cities just wanting to play ball.

George Angell, May 2020

[1] Small’s remark is noted in Carol Rogers Walton, “MLB Sets Sights On New Markets In India, Europe,” Baseball America, 2 May 2019, https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/mlb-sets-sights-on-new-markets-in-india-europe/

[2] The statistics are available in “2019 Opening Day Rosters Feature 251 Internationally-Born Players,” https://www.mister-baseball.com/2019-mlb-opening-day-rosters-feature-251-internationallyborn-players/.

[3] See Federico Anzil, “Chart of the Week: The Rise of Latinos in Major League Baseball,” https://visme.co/blog/mlb-demographics/.

[4] See “Sorry, the Summer Game Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” https://georgeisgettingupset.com/2020/02/20/sorry-the-summer-game-doesnt-live-here-anymore/.

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