On COVID-19, baseball, and risk

Nearly every decision made in the COVID-19 era is ultimately about risk. It’s a risk to go to the grocery store. It’s a risk to go for a walk. It’s a risk to be within six feet of somebody you don’t know, particularly if they are not wearing a mask. It’s a risk to ride public transportation, to go into an office, or to visit your parents. Navigating our dramatically changed world is about weighing and managing those risks in a way which puts the fewest people in danger, either from the illness itself or its indirect effects.

As the United States crosses the 100,000 death threshold, Major League Baseball has begun discussing what it would mean to have a 2020 season. The arguments surrounding this discussion have largely been focused on money — fewer games and no attendance means less revenue — with the magnitude of a resulting pay reduction being the center of the dispute. With the need to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming, there are additional implications to whatever agreement the union and the owners will likely reach for this season.

The players likely have the most to lose in this argument. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; owners have been squeezing players in recent seasons as the “smart money” funnels what used to be player wages into the owner’s pockets. The current ownership proposal also takes away more money than what the MLBPA already agreed to in March. It represents a pay cut on top of a pay cut. However, if an agreement is not reached, the players will probably be the ones to take the blame. It’s not fair, but the owners will likely win that PR war.

It seems odd that the discussions surrounding the idea of a 2020 season are focused around the money itself, not our ever-present thoughts about risk. For most players, this direct risk is pretty low, since they are young and most do not have underlying health issues which increase their danger of dying of COVID-19. However, that is not true of all players, as Scott Alexander noted in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week:

“If the doctors were to tell me at some point that I was definitively at a high risk and it could be fatal if I were to contract the coronavirus because I have Type 1 diabetes, then I would have to seriously consider not playing.”

Then there are the ripple effects caused by baseball existing. Even if a particular player is not in a high-risk health group, chances are high that they care about somebody who is. There are players’ families to worry about. There are coaches, travel staff, people who work at the hotels where the players would stay, people who work at the stadiums, people who broadcast and write about those games, and many more. MLB’s return plan lays out an extensive testing plan for players and staff, but it’s not clear if the testing plan alone is good enough to limit negative effects on public health (not to mention the moral grey area of running a massive testing operation for a non-essential activity while much of the nation is still suffering from a shortage of tests).

There is also risk created by not having baseball this year. A canceled 2020 season has serious long-term implications for the future of the sport, and not just from a negative PR perspective. Sports existing creates numerous jobs, many of which have already been lost. We here at Dodgers Digest want baseball back as badly as anybody; we all have friends who have been hit with layoffs or furloughs in the industries surrounding sports. Baseball not returning this year would cause continued hardship for our friends, and will make it more difficult for the industries surrounding the sport (and our site’s traffic) to recover in the future.

Every person is going to process the nature of risk differently. When weighing the idea of accepting the current ownership proposal (or any proposal, for that matter), a player will have to figure out if these risks are worth it to them. Is it worth taking a huge pay cut while increasing the risk of exposure to themselves, their families, and their communities? Does the idea of having baseball back, which would be good for the emotional well-being of many people who are struggling as a result of this crisis, outweigh that risk? These questions are deeply personal, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge people for how they answer.

If 20% of the player’s union (or whatever non-zero number it ends up being) is not comfortable taking the risk of playing baseball this season, that raises the question: do we even need to have a season? I’ve been grappling with this question a lot as a fan lately, especially as baseball ramps up in Asia. Taiwan has not had any locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in over a month and will likely allow full fan attendance soon. South Korea is only experiencing a double digit number of new cases per day. Japan now has similar numbers, and will start their season in mid-June. It might be years until the US is at this point, especially as taking proper precautions against the spread of the disease becomes a political issue. MLB also has geography problems which are less present in the Asian leagues, which makes life even more complicated.

I’m finding myself increasingly willing to accept that the US is not ready for baseball right now. Ultimately there will be some players who will not want to accept the increased risk of baseball happening, not to mention many more among the numerous non-player personnel it takes to make baseball happen. Regardless, I do expect that there will be some form of Major League Baseball this year, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to turn my brain off enough to stop thinking about the risks, no matter how amazing it will be to see Mookie Betts in Dodger blue.

About Daniel Brim

Daniel Brim
Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.