Kim Ng was still working for Major League Baseball this time last year, when the coronavirus became so acute in the U.S. that major professional sports leagues began to shut down. A top MLB international official, she was in Tucson, Ariz., for the anticipated start of the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers with teams in town from all over the world.
She recalled sitting in her hotel room watching television when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive last March 11 and commissioner Adam Silver stopped National Basketball Association play in its tracks.
“I just said to myself, ‘Wow, this is big. This is really big,’” said Ng, who has since been named general manager of the Miami Marlins, the first female in MLB history to have such a high-ranking position in baseball operations. “And I knew from there we were in trouble, but I didn’t know how much trouble.”
The next day, March 12, the National Hockey League and MLB paused for what turned out to be four months, and the Big East Tournament was canceled during a quarterfinal game at Madison Square Garden, where the two teams—St. John’s and Creighton—simply left the court at halftime and never came back. Ultimately the NCAA canceled its entire March Madness men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, causing a $600 million loss in revenue.
But perhaps no sport was hit harder than baseball, which not only was relegated to a 60-game season without fans in any of the 30 ballparks, but lost a year of development of its youngest players when the minor leagues were shuttered altogether.
As the day dawned on March 12, Grapefruit League games in Florida were already underway. But in Arizona, the Cactus League teams hadn’t taken the field by the time Commissioner Rob Manfred announced a halt in play. The WBC Qualifiers were canceled and have yet to be staged, the full tournament pushed back to 2023.
On March 13, a national emergency was declared, allowing Manfred to use a clause in the unified players’ contract to open up the Basic Agreement. There has been rancor between the owners and players ever since.
“I mean, it’s been crazy, a crazy time in this country,” Ng added. “But I think we’ve dealt with it in the best ways we could.”
Now, a full year later, on a Friday in spring training, MLB is eyeing a 162-game season opening on April 1 with limited fans in the stands, depending on local health and safety protocols, from 10% in New York to the announcement Wednesday that the Texas Rangers will officially open one-year-old Globe Life Field at 100% capacity. Last October, the National League Championship Series and World Series were played in a soft bubble in Arlington, Texas, allowing a maximum 11,500 people of the 40,300 total capacity for each of the 12 games.
According to Manfred, MLB lost $3 billion in revenue last year and had to accrue $8.3 billion in debt just to play 37% of the season. Those losses will continue to mount this year, even as more and more Americans are vaccinated and the nation comes to a new normal.
It should be noted that on this day a year ago, there were 40 deaths and about 1,000 cases in the U.S. because of COVID-19, while today more then 532,000 people have passed. There are currently 29.2 million cases, offset by 25.5 million people fully vaccinated and 50.7 million having taken at least one dose. There are 335 million people in the country, meaning there’s still a long way to go.
“We’ve learned a lot in the last year,” Derrick Hall, the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said Wednesday. “First and foremost we learned just how important our fans are, and that’s the same for every team in every sport. We also realize how important baseball is in the lives of our fans. This is an important part of getting back to recovery and to a point of normalcy.”
The D-backs plan to open their home season April 9 at 25% capacity at the 48,519-seat Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. Meanwhile, the 15 teams in the Cactus League, including the D-backs, are currently playing spring training games at about 20% capacity.
Those numbers are sure to increase as more people are vaccinated.
“We’ve been told that’s what we can do with appropriate socially distancing, which comes out to about 25% for us,” Hall said. “We’re looking at other venues, other stadiums, and seeing what their jurisdictions are allowing. It’s more important for us to take a smaller step at first, and watch, and do it in a very responsible way, as more of these vaccinations kick in.”
As of now, no athletes have been vaccinated, although that’s coming and may delay the start of the minor league season until non-40-man roster players get their shots. Already, the Triple-A season has been delayed a month into May.
MLB, which is now operating the entire 120-team minor league system at four levels, could unilaterally demand that all minor leaguers who aren’t included on a 40-man roster get their shots in order to play this season. Baseball has issued similar edicts in the past by banning smokeless tobacco and devising a much more comprehensive drug program for the minor leagues.
In the Majors, though, vaccinations won’t be mandatory for MLB players, said a source with knowledge of the subject. Any vaccination requirements will have to be collectively bargained under health and safety protocols. Last Saturday during his state of the NBA press conference, Silver said his league would not mandate vaccinations for its players. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday he believed some of their players have been vaccinated, but the stages of widespread use will be negotiated with the NHL Players Association.
It’s all certainly a work in progress as the events of the past year have dictated.
“It puts everything into perspective,” said Luis Rojas, who was beginning his first season as manager of the New York Mets when the world as he knew it ceased to be. “Even a year from that day I can recall it very thoroughly how everything just went down. We actually had a day off that day. The seriousness of it, we really didn’t know. We had already had a couple of meetings about the virus. Then everything unfolded quickly, and we had to part ways to be safe. We just didn’t know it would go this far.”