How long should baseball’s short season extend?
The players say November. The owners say October.
But, if the sole factor is minimizing risk for the novel coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the major leagues would be wise to wrap up the postseason in September.
“If the question is time, I would try to keep it in the core summer months and end it not with the way we play the World Series, until the end of October when it’s cold,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a telephone interview with The Times on Tuesday. “I would avoid that.”
Owners have expressed concern about an increase in coronavirus cases, notably in the home states of nine of the 10 teams that would be grouped in the Western region. Those outbreaks have “increased the risks associated with commencing spring training in the next few weeks,” MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem wrote to players’ union negotiator Bruce Meyer on Monday.
Nonetheless, Fauci said, playing in July likely would be less risky than playing in October.
“Even in warm weather, like in Arizona and California, we’re starting to see resurgences as we open up,” Fauci said. “But I think the chances of there being less of an issue in the end of July and all of August and September are much, much better than if you go into October.”
Fauci said he understood that minimizing risk is one factor for baseball, but not the only one. In a letter to Meyer last week, Halem said the owners’ desire to complete the playoffs before November was based primarily on the recommendation from the league’s medical advisor. Halem also noted that MLB’s television partners do not wish to shift the postseason from October. The league has told the union that postseason television revenue is worth $787 million.
In the United States, deaths from the coronavirus are projected to rise steadily in July and August, then sharply through September, according to projections Monday from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The best he can do, Fauci said, is to say that October baseball is probably not the best of ideas this year.
“I’d have to underscore probably,” he said. “This virus is one that keeps fooling us. Under most circumstances — but we don’t know for sure here — viruses do better when the weather starts to get colder and people start spending more time inside, as opposed to outside. The community has a greater chance of getting infected.
“The likelihood is that, if you stick to the core summer months, you are better off, even though there is no guarantee. … If you look at the kinds of things that could happen, there’s no guarantee of anything. You would want to do it at a time when there isn’t the overlap between influenza and the possibility of a fall second wave.”
In his correspondence with the league, Meyer suggested the league’s refusal to extend the postseason into November is a cost-containing mechanism wrapped in what he called a “pretext” of player health. In the event of outbreaks in certain areas, Meyer said the union is willing to let the league relocate games to neutral sites.
A bubble is not mandatory, Fauci said. But, in the absence of one, he said player health could be dependent on how well players and their families keep to themselves when they can and practice social distancing and wear masks when they cannot.
“In Washington, D.C., the cases are going down, but we’re not finished with the outbreak yet,” he said, “That’s the reason why, when I’m on the outside, I always wear a mask. I avoid crowds.”
Fauci, 79, said he misses watching his hometown team, the World Series champion Washington Nationals. The 2020 season would start — and probably finish — in fan-free ballparks. But Fauci said he would feel comfortable catching a game in a stadium with limited capacity once the infection rate declines, even if not to zero.
“Unless you have a dramatic diminution in cases,” he said, “I would feel comfortable in spaced seating, where you fill one-half or one-third or whatever it is of the stadium, and everybody is required to wear a mask in the stadium.”