Postseason to be held at neutral sites, Manfred wants fans (and their wallets) in attendance

Commissioner Rob Manfred's office has announced an agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players' Association on neutral locations for this years Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series. While the first round of playoffs will still be held at the higher seed's home ballparks, the latter rounds will be contained to southern California and Texas.

The National League will hold its Division Series at the Rangers' and Astros' American League facilities in Arlington and Houston. The American League will hold theirs at NL parks in Los Angeles and San Diego. The NLCS will be at Globe Life Field in Arlington, the ALCS at Petco Park in San Diego, and the World Series will take place entirely in Arlington. There will be no off days during any of the series until the World Series.

The neutral locations will be less important in this year with no spectators, but the lack of off days will change the way playoff teams will operate, particularly in the way pitching staffs are comprised and used. Clubs won't be able to rely on their top three or four starting pitchers as has been the norm since the LCS went to a best-of-seven format in 1985.

The rationale is, of course, COVID-19 related. Reducing travel minimizes chance for exposure to the virus and is intended to prevent any outbreaks of the sort the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals each experienced earlier in the season. Los Angeles and San Diego tend to have favorable weather in October and both of the Texas stadiums have retractable roofs. Eliminating the traditional off days allows the postseason to end within the month of October, as Manfred insisted was necessary due to the pandemic's expected "second wave" in the fall.

Manfred has likened this arrangement to the "bubbles" employed by the NBA and NHL in their seasons, but players will not be isolated in the same manner as is the case with those other sports. Furthermore, Manfred is floating the idea of selling tickets and allowing fans to attend the League Championship and World Series, a greater puncture of the "bubble" concept. 

The Commissioner doesn't care if you get sick, he just wants your money.

“I’m hopeful that [for] the World Series and the LCS we will have limited fan capacity,” Manfred said. "Obviously, it’ll be limited numbers, socially distanced, protection provided for the fans in terms of temperature checks and the like. Kind of the pods like you saw in some of the NFL games. We’ll probably use that same theory."

Of course, even playing without spectators required municipalities to grant special permissions to the league. Local rules may prohibit Manfred from having his hope fulfilled, though siting some of these games in Texas, where the governor has been less concerned with public health directives, makes this a more likely possibility than it might be elsewhere (though Florida would have been a more blatant choice). Manfred, of course, is mostly concerned with the short-term bottom line and not public health. "I think it would be a good thing [to have fans at the LCS and World Series] just in terms of getting people used to the idea being back in the ballpark," he said. But he then said the quiet part out loud: "The clubs, the industry, we lose about 40 percent of our revenue when we play without fans."

Manfred is also counting on 2021 being a normal season. With national leadership being completely absent on this matter from the beginning—or, it could be argued, actively making things worse—such an assumption cannot yet be responsibly made, yet Manfred needs next year to offset 2020’s anemic financial income. While he admits that next year "is dependent on the virus," and that for normal operations to resume all local governments will have to allow it, he also said this: “What our experts are telling us is that they expect by the time we resume play in the spring, we will have a widely distributed vaccine.”

This is absurd. While a vaccine may, in fact, be ready for use by next March—not a likely occurrence, but possible—even under the best of circumstances it will in no way be widely distributed. A very optimistic projection suggests COVID-19 vaccinations could become available for limited, focused populations before next summer, but hardly for mass distribution. “Remember, on day one we won’t have enough vaccine for all of the U.S.,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University. “We will be rolling out a vaccine program as the vaccine becomes more available, and for a considerable period of time much of U.S. population will not be vaccinated. We will have to continue social distancing activities.” Manfred would be wise to tamp down these wide-eyed speculations about a normal 2021 season. So much is still unclear about how things will play out with the pandemic, and much depends on whether or not we get a more responsible government taking the reins next January.

Meanwhile, the 2020 mini-season is nearing its conclusion and the wacky postseason in which a second-place finish is just as good as being first will be here before we know it—capped by a World Series played indoors on plastic grass in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, between two teams that are not the Texas Rangers, possibly in front of paying customers, possibly not. What a year.


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