We will not have a 162-game season in 2020. MLB is complying with the CDC’s directive to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. Eight weeks takes us to mid-May, and if we assume players will need some kind of tuneup, it looks like we’ll see baseball around Memorial Day at the earliest. If the league cancels the All Star Game, baseball can make up some time, but it sure seems unlikely that there will be more than about 120 games played this year.
One of the wonderful things about baseball is there is precedent for almost everything. Mike Trout might just be the best player I’ve ever seen, but older fans have seen precedent in Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams. There’s precedent for shortened seasons too, and I think it’s useful to revisit the last such seasons, 1994 and 1995.
On August 11, 1994, MLB played its last game for the season. Owners had argued for a salary cap over the previous winter and held up nearly eight million dollars in agreed upon salary and benefit payments two months before. In response to increasing friction between players and ownership, the MLBPA agreed on a strike date of August 12, and baseball was done for the year. A month later, with no end to the strike in sight, the World Series was canceled.
This was a black eye for the sport and a number of franchises. The Expos were in the midst of their best season ever, and could very well have made the World Series had the Fall Classic been played. The Yankees were the best team in the AL and might have kick-started their dynasty run early, and captain Don Mattingly might have gotten two shots at postseason play instead of just one the next year.
The cancellation of the World Series had precedent too - the Series was not played in 1904. That’s it. Baseball’s preeminent championship had endured two World Wars, a depression, even an earthquake just five years before. The loss of the first Fall Classic in 90 years was the last straw in a series of events that hurt baseball the next year as well, with fans launching pseudo-protests against players and attendance declining 20%. The per-game average attendance over 1990-1994 was 28,359, and MLB wouldn’t see turnout like that until 1998.
All this is to highlight how much damage shortening seasons can do to sports leagues. MLB is going to do whatever they can to have a World Series in 2020, because for all its faults, the league is the chief custodian of the sport. Rob Manfred has taken a lot of (well deserved!) heat this winter, but he knows as well as anyone the impact a canceled season would have on the sport. Consumers have never had more content at their fingertips, and so it’s not surprising baseball often feels like it’s moved to the periphery of pop culture. The loss of a full season would exacerbate that perceived, if not actual, decline.
There are precedents for canceling the World Series, and the most recent of them did significant damage to the health of our favorite sport. But there is even greater precedent for playing on - those depressions and wars, earthquakes and terror attacks (more on that this weekend). Baseball endures, and will endure this pandemic, and we’ll be remarking in late October what a weird year this has been.