Bubble ball? MLB considers creating one for the playoffs and World Series
The major leagues might yet play bubble ball this year.
In the wake of coronavirus outbreaks that have interrupted the season for three teams, Major League Baseball is considering whether to move the postseason into a bubble, according to a person briefed on the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The league is preparing what the person called "contingency plans for the postseason" but cautioned that none of those plans is guaranteed to happen, with the possibility teams could continue to play in home ballparks. The contingency plans could include a postseason bubble or moving some or all of the postseason to neutral sites with warm weather and relatively low spread of the virus.
The option for neutral sites could be complicated by two factors: one, a comparatively safe zone for the virus in September could turn into a hot spot in October; and, two, as Dr. Anthony Fauci previously told the Los Angeles Times, the onset of flu season adds another risk factor.
"Flu season starts in October," said Dr. Dena Grayson, a Florida-based pandemic specialist. "Good luck with that."
Said Grayson: "The least unsafe way would be to somehow have a bubble."
The Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies were sidelined for a week by an outbreak on the Marlins, with the Phillies sitting out to ensure the outbreak had not spread to their team. The St. Louis Cardinals will be sidelined for at least two weeks, with no return date set and not much chance to play a full 60-game schedule.
"I think whether you get all the way to 60 or not, that's difficult at this point," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday. "I think it's possible for them to play enough games to be credible, to be a credible competitor in this season."
MLB has not determined how it would proceed if a team were hit by an outbreak in the postseason, but shutting down the postseason for a week might not be tenable for the other teams in the playoff field or for the league's television partners. On the other hand, a team advancing in the playoffs simply because its opponent was disqualified because of an outbreak might not be satisfactory.
"Now you're basically starting to talk about a 'Hunger Games' scenario," Grayson said.
The league had explored a bubble scenario for the entire season, with options to play only in Arizona; in Arizona and Texas; and in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Star players opposed the concept of isolating apart from their families for four months.
A postseason bubble would last for no more than one month, with players free to leave as soon as their teams were eliminated.
A bubble cannot eliminate the risk of a player contracting the virus, but it can reduce it. Dr. Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, said he would recommend that teams quarantine for three days before entering the bubble. At that point, players could enter the bubble and the postseason could start but with no off-field contact with players on other teams for another four days.
"If an outbreak happens, it stays restricted to that team," Binney said. "If that team has to get knocked out of the playoffs, so be it. But at least that way you can say there's probably very little risk of it transmitting to another team, because baseball is a socially distant sport."
The Phillies took the field against the Marlins on a day that four Marlins players already had tested positive. No Phillies players were infected.
Binney said a week of quarantine before play would be preferred but said his plan took into account the increased injury risk of shutting teams down for a week, then starting up again. Three days of quarantine and four days of no off-field contact between teams would be a reasonable compromise.
"Then you're a week into the process of the teams being segregated from the greater community," he said. "It's possible something could come up on day eight, nine or 10, but it's pretty unlikely. So I would say, at that point, you could go to normal bubble protocol: Assume everybody is in and has not brought the virus with them."
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said he would be open to considering the merits of a warm-weather World Series in years beyond this one. He said he would consider the bubble for this year, and this year only.
"We can't be turned into a made-for-TV reality game," he said. "You're not going to get the performances you're looking for, and I think there's going to be a lot of interest lost. We need to get back to the fans. For right now, I'll take any kind of experimentation, so we can learn from that. This is the right time to do it.
"In the long run, we need the fans to be successful, to be the national pastime."