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Yankees owner wants fans in the stands, makes league’s priorities clear

The comments of Hal Steinbrenner and other owners portray a league which will prioritize profits over safety at every turn.

MLB: Winter Meetings Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A week into July, baseball has truly restarted. The Yankees will hold an intrasquad game tonight pitting the team’s star-studded roster against itself, and the schedule for the 60-game season is to be released in a matter of hours. We now stand just over two weeks away from a tantalizing Opening Day matchup, one that could feature Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer as the Yankees would head down to the nation’s capital to take on the Nationals.

To anyone paying attention, however, things aren’t exactly going smoothly across MLB’s restart. Several players and staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 upon entering camp, and many players have spoken openly about how uncomfortable they feel in the current climate, with some opting out of the season entirely. An alarming number of teams have been ensnared in testing snafus, with players holding and waiting days longer than expected for results.

This, after a long and bitter fight between the players and owners to even get to this stage of the restart, one which put the focus on finances, when a deadly pandemic represented the real challenge all along. Against this backdrop, of players getting sick, expressing their doubts about safety protocols, and hundreds of thousands of Americans testing positive for coronavirus every week, with thousands more dying, owners such as Hal Steinbrenner have opined that staging this season with fans in the stands is feasible.

The Yankees’ owner told the YES Network last week that “I do expect to see fans in our stadium at some point, to some degree”. Steinbrenner described a plan to fill Yankee Stadium to 20-30% capacity, while mandating masks and keeping patrons six feet apart. He indicated that 20-30% mark was a hopeful target “at first”, suggesting that perhaps they could aim for even more fans at a later date.

Steinbrenner isn’t alone. Astros owner Jim Crane said last month that he expects fans in the stands in Houston. The Texas Rangers are reportedly trying to find a way to fill up to half of their brand new air conditioner stadium with fans. Cubs president Crane Kenney said at the end of June that “We are at a point where we believe we can bring some portion of our fan base back to Wrigley field”.

Some teams haven’t been quite as gung-ho. The Cardinals vice president of ticket sales said the team was merely “hopeful” about putting butts in seats. Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, with cases in Arizona skyrocketing, was surprisingly lucid about his team’s prospects of entertaining live fans, stating “My expectation and our expectation is we are going to be playing our games this year without fans in the ballpark... the answer needs to be that the most important thing for us is the health of the players and the health of any fans.”

Kendrick’s comments are surprising because they run counter to a pattern of behavior from the league’s brass. Steinbrenner and company’s comments demonstrate that the bottom line has always been the bottom line for the owners. The league spent weeks attempting to cut player pay on the basis that revenues would plummet without fans in the stands, then immediately switched to pushing for fans in the stands once a season was agreed to. Most importantly, putting fans in stands would likely bring the danger of helping spread disease, at a time when even many players don’t feel safe.

It all paints a picture of a league that has consistently put profits ahead of safety. In light of a disastrous weekend of summer camp, MLB’s safety protocols look shaky to the most charitable observer. At worst, the league’s plans appear distressingly half-baked, with MLB content to just wing it and hope for the best now that the season is picking back up.

The Nationals and Astros cancelled workouts because of a delay in test results. The Athletics are frustrated, waiting for results that were supposed to arrive at MLB’s Utah lab early Monday morning but were still sitting in San Francisco. At least a few other teams have seen their workouts stymied by testing issues.

One could lend MLB the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their health protocols, which they claimed were reviewed by local health officials in cities in which the league plays, a claim refuted at the time by said health officials, are solid, and just need a few kinks worked out. We are certainly not public health experts here, and maybe Steinbrenner is right, and it’s possible to host a sporting event with several thousand people in the stands.

It’s just hard to argue the league deserves the benefit of the doubt right now. Not after a protracted financial battle in which owners attempted to divide players by casting the highest-paid athletes as potential villains, not when the league made claims about massive possible losses that were either misleading, flatly false, or downright stupid. Not when the league plans to travel players across the country, and not when a consensus seems to have emerged that one of the primary ways to stem spread of the novel coronavirus is to prevent “superspreader” events, in which large gatherings of people lead to outbreaks.

The simplest read of the events suggests that profits still rank at the top of MLB’s priority list. They’ve used a pandemic to cut costs at nearly every turn, in an effort to fend off a potential short-term loss. They fought the players’ desire to be paid what they were promised because of the specter of a fanless season, and are now trying to find ways to get fans in the stands. They spent weeks fretting over finances while questions about the league’s health protocols gathered, protocols that already appear stressed a week into camp.

There’s nothing I’d rather do right now than spend a summer afternoon at a baseball game. I find it hard to imagine there’s any way to do so safely in this country at this current moment. Based on how the league has behaved this year, however, I feel little assurance that the safety of fans, players, and stadium personnel will be the top consideration when it truly comes time to decide how and whether to push forward with the 2020 season.