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Two out of three Asian professional baseball leagues are making progress in their quests for a normal regular season.
In Taiwan, the Chinese Professional Baseball League has hit its stride, so much so that the Rakuten Monkeys and the Fubon Guardians are comfortable enough to close social distancing and shove each other after Jorge Sosa needed four shots to plunk a guy on the right cheek.
(I really miss writing about beefs.)
Up in South Korea, the Korean Baseball Organization has established a framework for an uninterrupted 144-game season that starts on May 5, with the regular season concluding on Nov. 2. The postseason could end as late as Nov. 28, but all games after Nov. 15 will be played indoors at a neutral site. If a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the league will shut down for a minimum of two weeks.
The KBO is playing its version of spring training games without fans, while the CPBL has seat-fillers in the form of mannequins and robots. It gives standard baseball drama a really creepy spin.
However, Nippon Professional Baseball’s Opening Day continues to get pushed back. Japan’s top league has ruled out starting the season at any point in May after a new wave of coronavirus cases has swamped the country’s health system.
Of the three countries, Japan’s response is probably the closest to the effectiveness and thoroughness (or lack thereof) in the United States, which is why I’m skeptical MLB can pull off a season with any kind of continuity.
Also, the KBO is banishing spitting, which has always struck me as the hardest personal habit to break in this whole thing for the players on the field. Both the sport of baseball and the physical object that is a baseball are loaded with saliva, and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle said that catchers are caught in the crossfire:
Catchers are the players who most notice baseball’s general lack of cleanliness. They are in the crossfire; batters step to the plate and spit, pitchers lick their fingers, then grab the ball and throw it to them. It’s a concern.”
“People spit at home plate when I’m squatting and it blows in my face; that stuff happens all the time, it’s nuts,” said former A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki, part of the Nationals’ championship team last season. “Guys lick their fingers all the time; I don’t know how you’d even take precautions to stop that. If you’re thinking about not licking your fingers or not spitting, you’re not focused on the task at hand.”
Outside of selling off futures in sunflower seeds, I’m not sure what actions the league can take that won’t require tons of monitors. Cities and stadiums have tried to ban chewing tobacco, but that doesn’t stop players from loading up in the dugout.
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Speaking of MLB, it’s floating a new idea in an effort to restart the season. From the creators of “The Arizona Plan” and “The Forever Cactus/Grapefruit Leagues,” introducing “Here Comes Texas.” R.J. Anderson at CBS Sports writes:
On Monday, multiple league sources informed CBS Sports about a different idea that has been discussed in recent days. In this arrangement, the league would have teams stationed in one of three hubs: Florida, Arizona or Texas. The clubs would then make use of the local major- and minor-league (or spring training) facilities.
Ballparks in St. Petersburg (Florida), Phoenix (Arizona), and Arlington (Texas) each have roofs, retractable or otherwise, that would safeguard against rainouts and other extreme weather, allowing for multiple games to be hosted at those sites per day. Theoretically, MLB could also ask teams stationed in Florida and Texas to drive three-plus hours to other MLB parks (Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Miami’s Marlins Park).
A three-state setup gives Major League Baseball a chance at replicating the KBO, which has a better chance at pulling off a return because there are only 10 teams, and only about 250 miles between the two most distant cities.
Of course, having three different settings means three different states have to get up to speed with containment, and two of the three states have had the least-inspiring responses to the coronavirus. If James McCann and others have their say, they wouldn’t be returning to action until players can be tested robustly without hogging resources, but such a premise largely theoretical until the country can actually test at scale to begin with.
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Beyond the matter of isolating players from their families, which would still seem largely necessary, financial issues remain. Such concessions might be harder to make if the league is also expecting players to take a pay cut beyond the simple prorating to which they’ve already agreed.
The league also faces a conundrum when it comes to tickets. Two fans in New York sued Major League Baseball, its 30 teams and several ticketsellers for full restitution from tickets purchased for the 2020 season. I normally wouldn’t make much out of one lawsuit, but there are a lot of fans wondering how hard they’ll have to fight for their money, so it seems like this could have class-action legs if enough parties drag their feet.
At least the White Sox have done right by their people in one regard, as they were among the first teams to pay their full-time employees through the end of May. When I wrote on Monday that Jerry Reinsdorf’s employees have a lot of regard for the man, I was alluding to gestures like this one.