MLB finalizes plan for neutral-site postseason

Major League Baseball will have the first neutral-site World Series in league history as part of the finalized creation of bubble environments for most of the 2020 postseason.

As had been expected, MLB and the MLB Players Association completed a deal that will quarantine teams and use neutral sites during the latter three rounds of the postseason. 

The American League Division Series will be split between Petco Park in San Diego, California, and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The National League Division Series will be split between Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas, and Globe Life Field in Arilngton, Texas. The American League Championship Series will be played at Minute Maid Park, while the National League Championship Series and World Series will be staged at Globe Life Field.

Both Globe Life Field and Minute Maid Park are retractable-roof ballparks.

Those particular playoff groupings, highlighted by American League teams playing in National League ballparks and vice versa, was designed to avoid teams playing in their own ballparks and getting away from the neutral-site concept of the retooled format. The Texas Rangers, who normally play in Globe Life Field, are currently far out of playoff contention, and almost certainly will not be in this year’s World Series.

The expanded Wild Card round, created as part of a July deal between the league and union to expand the 2020 playoff field to 16 teams, will still be played in local markets at higher seeds’ home ballparks beginning September 29.

The World Series is slated to begin October 20 and conclude no later than October 28. 

The games set for Petco Park and Dodger Stadium, however, could ultimately run into operational issues given the wildfires that have now broken out around the United States’ West Coast and resulting poor air quality.

Notably, each Division Series and League Championship Series will be played without any off days, as the only travel for teams will occur after each playoff round and not within any of them. There are still scheduled off days following Games 2 and 5 of the World Series.

The neutral-site postseason concept comes after the league earlier this year struggled significantly with team-level Covid-19 outbreaks involving the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. The move to the neutral sites and more heavily quarantined environments, conversely, is designed to avoid such issues in the postseason, and in turn preserve nearly $1bn in media rights revenue for the league.

“In the view of our infectious disease experts, the biggest rise of exposure for players and staff is contact with family members and friends who have been exposed to Covid-19 in their communities,” said MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem in a memo sent to clubs on the new format. “Nearly all of the positive test results that have been reported for players and staff in the last month can be traced back to contact with an infected family member, domestic partner, or friend outside of club facilities.”

To that end, the retooled playoff format, neutral sites, and quarantined environments come with a host of enhanced health and safety protocols that include rules around family visitation of players in the quarantined sites. Families will be able to be part of the MLB bubble, provided they complete a seven-day quarantine first leading into the Division Series.

All contending teams must also move into a hotel for the final week of the regular season, including those finishing up their schedules at home, to begin a quarantine in advance of the playoffs.

“The agreement attempts to balance players’ experiences and concerns while making the accommodations necessary to best ensure a safe, healthy, and successful conclusion to the 2020 season,” said Tony Clark, MLBPA executive director. 

The World Series was last played in a single site in 1944, when that Fall Classic involved the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns, who each played at Sportsman’s Park.

MLB has historically resisted playing its most important games in a neutral site, differing from the strategy used by the National Football League, which plays the Super Bowl each year a neutral location typically chosen years in advance.

Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, said at a Hofstra University event earlier this week he hopes to have some attending fans at the later stages of the playoffs.

“I’m hopeful that for the World Series and the [League Championship Series] we will have limited capacity,” Manfred said. “I think it’s important for us to start back down the road. Obviously, it’ll be limited numbers, socially distanced, protection provided for the fans in terms of temperature checks and the like. Kind of like the pods you saw in some of the [National Football League] games. We’ll probably use that same theory. But I do think it’s important as we look forward to 2021 to get back to the idea that live sports…are something that we can get back to.”