Answering Your Questions About the Return of Baseball

Stan Bunger
July 03, 2020 - 6:49 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. 

    Every morning, Monday through Friday, at 9:20 a.m. we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment. Each day we'll focus on a different aspect of this situation. 

    This week, KCBS Radio's Stan Bunger had a chance to speak withe Presidents of both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's about the return of Major League Baseball. 

    Here is Stan's interviews with both of them. First with Giants President and CEO Larry Baer.

    Larry, you’re approaching the most unusual baseball season that has ever been, and while that sounds over-the-top, it’s indeed true. How do you view it?

    Larry Baer: Well, I first come from the standpoint that if we can elevate the community spirit, that’s an important thing for baseball and for any sport and any entertainment. We’ve all been in a really tough period, it’s been a period where we’ve been disturbed by issues of racial injustice, we’ve been disturbed, obviously, health and safety impact that have changed our lives. So that, I think, is the most important role sports can play, is to bring joy and elevate communities, and we’ve seen sports do that. If you go back through the years, it did it after the earthquake here, it did after 9/11. We’ve been researching the 1918 pandemic, sports was able to elevate, especially baseball, which was the main sport in the country.

    People have a lot of questions about how it’s going to work, so let’s see if we can walk through some of those. First of all, the notion that you can play a sport and remain distanced. How does that work?

    LB: First thing, Stan, is we have to have very, very tough and proven protocols. And we’re trying to prove those protocols right now in Spring Training 2.0. And those protocols mainly revolve around testing.

    In baseball there’s more distancing than most sports: more than hockey, more than football, more than basketball. But there will be plays at second base, there will be the catcher-batter interaction that won’t be particularly distanced. But if the testing is frequent, and reliable and works, we should be able to minimize the positive tests and minimize the risks to the industry. And I think that’s possible, I think we can do that, but it starts now and it starts as players report this week. 

    We’re finding that we’re gonna really need to monitor them, and then players are going to be on the honor system to some extent once the season starts on the road, but all indications are that they’re going to be very cooperative. 

    Baseball is doing this, as you pointed out, with the players traveling, on the road, at home, living the way they normally would. This is not the “enbubbling”—as some people have called it—that other sports are envisioning for their comeback. So does that present particular problems?

    Yes, I think we’re going to have to have a trust of the players when we’re on the road. So when we go down to play the Dodgers and the game is over, all the formal movements will be pretty well controlled. We feel pretty good about it, meaning we’re going to be on a plane that’s been sanitized and there will be very few people other than the team itself on the plane, and then obviously the pilots and attendants who have been tested. Then we get private vehicles to get us to the hotel. We’re essentially, not going to be going out of the hotel. So we think we can make this work. 

    It’s a 111-page manual outlining each step, but we don’t profess to having 100% certainty, and there will be positive cases somewhere. We just want to make sure they’re contained and if zero is the number, that’s great. There have been some already as people arrive. 

    I think the toughest part, Stan, is as people arrive to the camps because that’s the period where players and coaches have potentially been with the public, so we have to really care for the upfront part before can play again.

    So under the baseball protocol, if a positive test comes in for a player, a member of the staff, a coach or a manger, what next?

    LB: If there’s a positive test, they become quarantined and they will be literally removed for 14 days and then they will go through a series of additional tests to determine that the infection is not transmissible. 

    This is going to be an attempt to build on what’s been done by pro sports in other countries and even in this country. What do you think baseball has learned positively or negatively in these other efforts. 

    LB: First we’re going to be very conservative on fans. The ballparks will, in some ways, be more of a television studio than a ball park at first. Hopefully in some places there will be fans this year. And we’re going to gear up for 2021 to welcome people back to their local park, but what we’ve learned is you have to have a very tight and contained environment. We literally have a list of folks who can come in to the ballpark and they are the most essential of essential workers: people who are the groundskeepers or the clubhouse people. 

    For instance, I don’t need to be at the game. They don’t need me to play the game. 

    So we’re going to create an experience for fans, that they can watch on television and listen to on radio. But they are not but…and the folks that need to be involved in that with no fans is a small number. And I think what we’ve learned is your chances are exponentially higher if you can get a limited number of people at the ballpark. 

    The other thing is people like broadcasters and media are not going to be interacting with the players. So to keep the players safe, they’ll be in areas that will be distanced with masks. 

    People have been asking about that. There were some earlier reports that broadcasters wouldn’t be allowed into the stadium. What’s the story there?

    LB: So where we are now with that, which I think will survive further scrutiny, is that broadcasters will be in the ballpark at the home games, but will not go to road games. And we’ll call the games off the monitors, just because of the travel. Not so much getting into the park in a safe way in the press area. So we’re going to have broadcasters in the home games, but they will be largely in separate booths and they’ll be talking to each other and have headsets on so they’ll hear each other. They’ll have monitors and be calling the game in front of them, but they won’t be sitting next to each other, they’ll be in booths next door. So it’ll be like you and Susan or whoever in the morning in separate studios, which I guess you might be right now, right?

    It’s a giant experience. I mean, I’m actually recording this interview with you from home. But that’s become a fact of life. I want to go back to something you said before you came back from your hiatus, a year or so ago—and I’m paraphrasing—but in an interview you said the time away from the ballpark gave you a different perception of the product that Major League Baseball is. It’s a different product in the ballpark than it is for the millions who watch or listen to the broadcast. I’m curious to get your reflection on that.

    LB: You can’t diminish the impact of being at the ballpark. My favorite thing over the years has been to walk the stands and see mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, grandparents with their grandchildren. It’s the energy you get from interacting with strangers, high-fiving people who happen to be sitting next to you who you get to know during the game and getting to know the usher in your section. Those dynamics will return, but they won’t return in 2020. 

    In watching games on television, it’s an emotional thing in a different way, but you don’t have that same energy. But you do have the connection and you do have the up-close with the players and I think we have a number of players like Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Johnny Cueto who could do quite a good job of bringing that energy through the television screen or the radio by the descriptions of the announcers.

    So many changes, including this notion of an alternate training site and sort of a ready, reserved pool of players. Have the Giants decided where that’s going to be and how that’s going to work?

    LB: We’re like going to be in Sacramento, which is our AAA facility and a terrific facility in West Sacramento. But again, with all the protocols there, we’re going to have 30 players to start the season, you would have 30 active players on the Major League roster traveling, then you have another 30 players who are kind of waiting in the wings. So if you have a conventional injury like a hamstring pull or something COVID-19 related, the guys in Sacramento will be sharp, and they’ll be ready to join the club. If the club’s at home, it’ll be 90-minute drive to Oracle Park, or given the regional schedule we’re playing, they would be a short one to two hour plane flight to join the team.

    Speaking of that facility and the Minor Leagues, a lot of casual fans don’t quite understand the relationship between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. Of course the word this week, not unexpected, is that there won’t be any Minor League Baseball this year. Can you walk people through that relationship and what this year is doing to that?

    LB: First of all, the outcome this year is so sad and it’s crushing to all of us, and it’s a COVID casualty obviously. It’s cost a lot of people jobs and caused a lot of people heartbreak.

    We have seven Minor League affiliates, including the Dominicans. And typically we do have an ownership stake in San Jose, but the typical relationship is the parent club provides players, and these are independent businesses. 

    So if I own a Minor League team in Des Moines, for example, I’m affiliated, let’s say, with the Cubs. The Cubs provide me the players, they pay the players, because the players are drafted and developing, and then I get the stadium up and running, care for all the fan amenities, market the Des Moines Cubs, and that’s my role. So I’m making money as a Minor League owner on ticket sales really exclusively. There’s very little radio and television involved in Minor League baseball that generates rights. So they have lost, without being able to host fans, literally 90 to 95% of their revenues. And we haven’t been able to develop the players, so the players’ development is one year stalled. It’s kind of a lose-lose-lose all the way around, but we’re very focused on getting Minor League Baseball back up and running in 2021. But it’s one year of a really, kind of a nightmare, for many, many communities around the country. Think about it, Major League is playing, but there’s 35 major states where it’s not playing and Minor League Baseball takes over in Iowa, Idaho, Montana, or areas in the deep south like Alabama and Louisiana. We also have a team in Augusta, Georgia. 

    To lose Minor League Baseball for most communities is crushing.

    Do you see any possibility that this might lead to a shift in the plans to contract some Minor League teams?

    LB: I don’t know, that was sort of on a different track before the pandemic. The issue there was we were at 160 Minor League teams, and the proposal was to go to 120. And one of the problems was among those 40 being cut out, there were some substandard facilities and there were some places it didn’t really work for the parent club. But I don’t know. I think there’s going to be a major push to figure out a way for Minor Leagues to reengage with the American public, and I don’t know. I think it’s undecided what happens when it does come back in 2021. If the pandemic subsides and we’re able to play Major League Baseball in 2021 with fans I’m pretty confident that Minor League Baseball will be prioritized. 

    You’re the CEO of a mid-sized company: hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. But a big piece of that, some people say about 30%, is ticket sales and attendance. So how do you balance the books and keep the ship afloat? 

    LB: Well it’s tough because you take that big piece out, and I think what we’re trying to do is look at the long term. For instance, our full-time employees, of which we have about 400, we told them we’re retaining them through the season even though we don’t have fans. We gotta look at the long term. The Giants institution is important to the community and we want to keep employment and full-time employees as long as we can. I think the adjustments we’re going to have to make, we’ll have to look at different ways because for 2021 it’s not clear what we’ll be able to do, if we’ll be able to have the ballpark half full, a quarter full, hopefully 100% full, but we’ll see.

    We’re looking at other ways to reach out to fans. So, with all the technology from people working from home, we learned about a lot of ways to reach people through broadcasts that we haven’t thought of in the past. We could have fans Zoom’d into broadcasts potentially. You’ll see maybe a scratched surface in the broadcasts that start July 23 and 24, when the season starts.

    So I think we’ll look for new ways to generate revenue that doesn’t require fans to be in the ballpark, and some of that will be merchandise sales in different ways, and Zooming people to make a Giants offer. 

    What can you tell us about the status of game day people? Those who push the hot dogs and sell the beer.

    LB: When you talk about heartbreaking, these are people who really are the backbone of the franchise. They’re the folks you see when you come to the games. You don’t see me, you don’t see Farhan, you don’t see our owners, my partners. The people you see are the people who sell the hot dogs and the ushers, who have maybe been working their section for 15 or 25 years, and the person who takes your ticket. We have provided them with supplements to unemployment, they are furloughed. They will all come back when we are able to open the park to fans, and we’ll provide them supplements through the year to try to get them as close as possible to what they would have made if we had games and getting them to 50 to 75% of their earnings.

    Finally, we know there won’t be an exchange of line up cards at home plate before the first game because that’s now being done with an app, but will somebody say, “Play ball?”

    LB: I believe somebody will say, “Play ball,” there will be a national anthem sung. Do not look for any sunflower seed spitting contests, though.

    Stan Bunger then spoke with Oakland A's President Dave Kaval. 

    As Major League Baseball approaches in this truncated season, what lessons are you and others taking from what’s going on in other pro sports leagues. I’m thinking most notably of this attempt by Major League Soccer (MLS) to get going, and running into a lot of positive tests among players.

    Dave Kaval: As you know, our group owns the San Jose Earthquakes, and I used to run that team. So we’ve been in a lot of contact with the leadership there, with their general manager, and obviously with MLS, to really understand the learnings of what’s happening, and we want to obviously make sure that everything we do with our health and safety protocol in Oakland, takes some of the best practices and learning from other sports, no doubt. 

    The MLS approach was to bring everybody to one place. Baseball, of course, is going to practice and play in its home ballpark. Compare and contrast, if you would, what you think are the pros and cons of the approaches.

    DK: There are definitely different approaches in dealing with the virus and its impact on our communities and our sport. For baseball, we felt that having the player in their home market and then controlling the environment in our home stadiums would provide for the best opportunity to really have a season without fans, broadcast on television. And that was the agreement we made with our players. 

    Obviously, the bubble approach is a little different. I mean, certainly, for an interior sport like basketball, maybe it’s better suited for that. But we feel that with baseball, the ability to do social distancing, it’s less of a contact sport, we felt that this system could work and we obviously talked to a lot of great experts in the field to devise a plan that we think can provide for the health and safety of everyone involved. 

    A part of baseball’s issue, of course, is not having the spring training complexes to which the sport is accustomed so now the home ballpark becomes the summer training complex. How’s that working out?

    DK: It’s working out great, and we partnered with Alameda County and its health board to get the approval to use the Oakland-Alameda coliseum. That stadium has seen a lot of different uses and finally it can provide summer camp for our baseball team. Players are coming in today and tomorrow and getting tested. Hopefully the first, actual trainings will occur this weekend. So we’re going to have approximately two and a half to three weeks period where we get ready, then our exhibition games, then our games start on the 24th of July, which is coming up before you know it.

    Let’s talk a little bit about the business of baseball, because it’s close to a third of the revenue of every Major League team comes from ticket sales and there aren’t going to be any of those, at least not in California this year. I’m sure how the other states that are allowing public gatherings will work that out. But what about for you and the A’s?

    DK: Obviously it’s a huge impact on our business and our industry. We’ve had to kind of go back to the drawing board and come up with a new business model that ensures the health and safety as really at the top for our players, staff and employees. We’re focused the broadcast experience, we’re doing what we can in-stadium by piping in crowd noise from previous A’s games with the “Let’s go Oakland” chant to make sure it feels just as much like watching a game with fans as possible. 

    But it is a big difference from a business perspective. While we don’t have the revenue that comes in from tickets, from concessions, and from merchandise, which is a big part of our business.

    You had intended this season to go with a streaming model for the audio broadcast. Where does that stand now?

    DK: We have a great partnership with TuneIn, which is our broadcast partner for audio, and our games are all available, our pre-games turned into a podcast, which is really nice. We have a program called “A’s Cast” that you can download also and listen live. So that’s been a big hit and something that, obviously with everyone really connected to the internet and mostly at home, we think can work really well. 

    Where does the idea of using the parking lot for a really big drive-in ballgame go? Is that happening?

    DK: That is something we’re exploring with the city and the county. Right now we’re focused the approvals that we have from the county health board to play without fans, it does not include anyone in the parking lots per se, but I think as we continue to move through the games, we want to walk before we run, ensure that we get all of the protocols established correctly and the games on TV, it could definitely be something we add over time and we’ve heard from a lot of fans that it would be a fun thing. We just want to make sure we do it safely and make sure that the local county and also the state authorities and governor make sure that it makes sense for the community. 

    I’m sure it’s a better question asked of Bob Melvin, who’s actually managing the games, but how do you think baseball, the game, will be different with everything that’s changed, like certain rule changes and shorter season that makes it more of a spring than a marathon?

    DK: Every game is going to matter. I think that part is kind of fun, and it kind of reminds me of the NCAA tournament or some of these other sports that are more condensed. Typically, the A’s start to kind of flow. I was talking to Bob about it and talking to Billy D about it. Hopefully we can kind of put that behind us and have a really good spring here at the end of the season and into the playoffs. We have a great, young team, we’ve won 97 two years in a row, we’ve been in the playoffs, and so we want to get out there and showcase the great young players like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea on the mound, and really make waves this year in Major League Baseball. 

    Can I ask you for a moment to talk about Minor League Baseball? The news came this week—and it’s not a shock, of course, given the Major League story—that there isn’t going to be a Minor League season. So you have these dozens and dozens of cities where Minor League ball is an important part of the summer that’ll go without this year. How do you think the Minor League teams will navigate and survive this?

    DK: It’s a really difficult situation. I know a lot of Minor League owners, I started a Minor League earlier on in my career with the Golden Baseball League and I know the value that those teams bring to their local communities, whether it’s economic or just a civic pride and obviously the opportunity for the players. So I think it’s a really sad part of COVID-19, that it’s unable to move forward in 2020. It will have a lasting impact on that industry and I think it’s important for everyone to work together—Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball, everyone who cares about sports—to ensure that they have a long term, viable path to success in 2021 and beyond.

    Do you think there’s a need for some government intervention to support those teams? 

    DK: I think some of the efforts in the Care Act, which was out of the Federal government, did support   some of these Minor League teams in the beginning, so I think there are programs in place that could help and I think it’s about identifying which ones are the best. Also, just ensuring that we, as an industry, understand the value of the Minor League operations and its role in really promoting baseball as a sport in the entire country.

    A final question, my colleague Steve Bitker put me up to this, but he wants to know if you can guarantee that foul balls that hit the $129 fan cutouts will actually be the ball delivered to the person who bought that cut out, or will you give them a substitute ball?

    DK: No, no! We’re going to authenticate the ball with our authenticator. Eric Ferrell does a great job. It’ll be authenticated to that exact pitch, we’re going to put it in a box and we’re going to send it to someone, just like they would have caught it at the game. So it’s a great thing with our coliseum cutouts to have that program and to get the foul ball and it can hopefully just replicate a little bit of joy of coming to the ballpark.