BALTIMORE — Don’t know whether this qualifies as irony or not, but Thursday was going to be the earliest opening day in Orioles history.
Instead, it will be replaced by the latest home opener ever, and that’s only if we’re fortunate enough to see the containment of the coronavirus pandemic before it is necessary to cancel the 2020 Major League Baseball season altogether.
Realistically, there’s little chance that the season can be restarted before mid-June, and even starting that soon might require some games to be played in empty stadiums to flesh out the schedule to a reasonable length and recover some otherwise lost television revenue.
While MLB and the players union work to hash out myriad complicated business issues and map out possible resumption scenarios, this is fertile ground for speculation about when and how the now irregular season will restart and what it ultimately will look like.
The most intriguing scenario is a season-opening All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, since it is difficult to envision any practical way to hold an in-season Midsummer Classic if the season would — at best — be only a few weeks in progress by then.
There is a precedent, sort of. When the 50-day midseason players strike ended in 1981, MLB re-started the season with the All-Star Game that had originally been scheduled three weeks earlier at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
It set the right tone. The game drew the largest All-Star crowd in history and featured dramatic late-inning home runs by Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Mike Schmidt that gave the National League a 5-4 comeback victory. Carter had two home runs and was named the game’s MVP. If the American League had held on to win, the likely MVP would have been Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton.
This would be different in one important respect. Enough of the 1981 season had already been played before the strike to create a statistical basis for selecting the All-Stars. If the 2020 All-Star Game is played before any regular-season games, the multi-level selection process would be based largely on national popularity and 2019 performance.
The bigger challenge will be packing enough games into the condensed scheduling window to form a championship season of reasonable length with competitive integrity. That might involve weekly doubleheaders and an extension of the regular season well into October, which would push much of the postseason into November.
According to an ESPN report citing multiple MLB and union sources, both sides are open to the possibility of altering the playoff format to hold some postseason games at neutral sites to avoid wintry conditions in mid-November.
None of this is ideal, of course, but MLB needs to squeeze as much baseball as possible out of the time it might be allotted after the relevant government entities determine that it’s safe to resume operations.
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of sporting events at this terrible moment in history. No game is worth a life. No corners should be cut when it comes to the safety of the general populace. But there will come a time when life will return to some semblance of normalcy and — at that point — MLB has a responsibility to reconstitute a season that goes well beyond protecting its own financial welfare.
The sheer length of the normal baseball season comes with an assumed economic impact on each area that has a big league franchise. Considering the long-term damage the pandemic will do to the overall economy, every job — full-time or temporary — that can be saved in any industry is critical to an eventual recovery.
This is particularly true in Baltimore, where a variety of factors over the past five years have contributed to a huge downturn in Orioles attendance. That decline already had negatively impacted commerce far beyond the gates of the ballpark before the COVID-19 outbreak put the survival of countless downtown businesses in doubt.
The worst might be yet to come, but that’s why it’s so important for the National Pastime to make a strong comeback when the coast is finally clear.
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