With spring training suspension coming, MLB should delay decision on regular-season start

Three days ago, sitting in front of his locker inside the Astros clubhouse at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Josh Reddick stuck out his elbow. 

“We’re doing this now,” he said, with a grin on his face. 

Three days ago, the elbow tap had replaced the traditional interview introduction handshake. This was a precaution taken to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus in baseball, and it seems so quaint now. The world has changed a lot in three days, not for the better. 

Spring training will reportedly be suspended shortly, and that’s the right move.

What’s next? We’ll get to that in a minute. 

But continuing business as usual would have been wildly, recklessly irresponsible. There had to be a full stop, starting immediately. Teams can continue to prepare, but in their own facilities. Minor league players have arrived, and there are more than enough bodies to play intrasquad games and prepare for the start of the season, whenever that might arrive.  

This decision wasn’t just about the safety of the players, of course. 

Let’s be clear: In the big picture, with a global pandemic happening, players do not matter any more than the fans in the stands. This precaution had to be about the people who were still gathering in large numbers to see their favorite teams play. As long as the stadiums were open and games were being played, they were going to mingle on the concourses, sort through shirts in the team shop and stand in lines at the concession stands. Even with hand sanitizer stations around the ballparks and bathroom sinks available for hand washing, things were being touched and the virus was potentially being spread. 

Here’s the thing: We have no idea how many people in the U.S. actually have the coronavirus. Numbers of confirmed cases remain low because it’s been nearly impossible for regular citizens to get tested. Chances are, as tests are finally made readily available — a massive failing of the government and health care system in our country — in the United States, numbers will skyrocket. We don’t know that for sure, but it’s not a large leap in logic.

But wouldn’t we rather have a massive overreaction, where some games get canceled, than a massive underreaction, where the virus spreads rapidly at spring training games and thousands and thousands people contract the virus, leading to unnecessary deaths? 

The question facing Major League Baseball: What are they going to do next? While baseball fans wait for decisions on the regular season, the rest of the sporting world has sprung into action. 

Two NBA players tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA has suspended its season. The NCAA has announced its signature tournament — March Freaking Madness — will be played in front of empty arenas, and speculation is rampant that it might not be played at all. The Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and pretty much every league aside from the Big East have canceled their tournaments. Leagues across the world have suspended their seasons; the list is long and growing. 

Baseball is in a bit of a unique situation, though. The biggest difference between MLB and other American sports is this: The baseball regular season doesn’t start until March 26, exactly two weeks from today. It’s OK for MLB to delay its decision — for a few days, at least — on what to do with Opening Day and the weeks and months that follow.

Things have changed so rapidly on an hour-by-hour basis lately that it’s hard to even imagine what things might look like in a week. Think about how much happened just on Wednesday night. The NCAA announced its tournament will be played in arenas without fans. Tom Hanks announced that he had tested positive for the virus. NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive too. The NBA shut down its season. That all happened within about an hour. 

Think about how much more we know now than when Reddick offered his elbow tap instead of a handshake. 

There’s a lot of pressure on MLB to decide what happens with the regular season immediately. Now that spring training games are likely to be suspended — again, the right move, though a few days late — it’s OK to take a breath and learn more about the situation. It doesn’t matter whether the regular season is delayed 12 days out instead of 14 days out. 

Chances are, things will continue to get worse — much worse — before they get better. Chances seem pretty good that the start of the 2020 baseball season will be delayed, and the season might be shortened. It’s almost hard to imagine that not happening. 

But it’s also OK to act based on facts and information rather than panic, and the best way to make that happen is to wait a few days to act. 

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