On the eve of what had been scheduled as Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, Commissioner Rob Manfred vowed that the game will be back to help the nation heal from the coronavirus pandemic.
“The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back,” Manfred said in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “Whenever it's safe to play, we'll be back. Our fans will be back, our players will be back, and we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic.”
As far as when the season might start, the Commissioner said that the league is working with the CDC, the World Health Organization and a number of infectious disease specialists, leaning on those experts for advice on how to navigate a return to the field.
“My optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up,” Manfred said. “We'll have to make a determination, depending on what the precise date is, as to how much of a preparation period we need; whether that preparation period is going to be done in the clubs’ home cities or back in Florida and Arizona. I think the goal would be to get to as many regular-season games as possible, and think creatively about how we can accomplish that goal.”
Manfred did not offer a specific number of games he hopes teams will play this season, saying only that MLB needs to have “a regular season with a credible number of games,” as well as a postseason format that provides the most entertaining product possible.
“I think that the exact number that we'll see as reasonable is going to depend on when we get to go-ahead to play,” Manfred said. “I don't have some absolute number in my mind that's a make-or-break. I think we have to evaluate the situation. I also think that we need to be creative in terms of what the schedule looks like, what the postseason format looks like.
“Obviously our fans love a 162-game season and the postseason format that we have; we're probably not going to be able to do that this year, I think that's clear. It does give us an opportunity to do some different things, to experiment, and to make sure that we provide as many games as possible and as entertaining a product as possible.”
Ever since the sports world came to a halt earlier this month, Manfred has had ongoing conversations with his fellow commissioners from other sports in an effort to “try to take advantage of their best thinking.” It appears that MLB will examine all of its options, though Manfred seemed hesitant about the idea of playing seven-inning doubleheaders, a concept floated earlier Wednesday by Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins.
“We certainly have talked about the idea of using doubleheaders to maximize the number of games that we play,” Manfred said. “I think I have said publicly before that there are some numbers in baseball you can't change; nine innings is one of them. When I said that, I wasn't thinking about this particular crisis, so I'm sure it's something that will get some discussion.”
Playing games in front of empty ballparks could also be an option at some point, though Manfred noted the important role that fans play throughout the Majors.
“Fans are crucial to baseball as we know it,” Manfred said. “The fan experience is very, very important; it's part of the entertainment. We’ve seen it once with a game in Baltimore where we played empty; it's a very different experience. Obviously, our preference would be to play with fans.”
Opening Day won’t take place on Thursday as originally scheduled, but whenever baseball is able to return, Manfred believes the season openers will serve as “a real milestone in the return to normalcy” after a period that has been anything but normal.
“I think you saw it after 9/11 in terms of the resumption of play,” Manfred said. “I was there in Shea Stadium that night that we began playing [again in New York]; it was one of the most memorable games I've ever attended. It's an honor for our sport to be regarded in a way that we have been part of our country coming back from some horrific events. We hope that we can play a similar role with respect to this one."