Rays eye playoffs that will be dry, distant, definitely different

Rays Tales | “Subdued” celebrations, neutral sites, quarantines and bubble hotels are all expected for baseball’s postseason.
The Rays' Ji-Man Choi celebrates with his team in the clubhouse as they clinch a spot in the American League playoffs after defeating the Blue Jays on Sept. 27, 2019, in Toronto.
The Rays' Ji-Man Choi celebrates with his team in the clubhouse as they clinch a spot in the American League playoffs after defeating the Blue Jays on Sept. 27, 2019, in Toronto. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 12, 2020

Sometime in the next week or so, the Rays, barring a stunning collapse, will clinch a playoff berth for a second straight year. An American League East Division title could be locked up shortly thereafter.

But don’t expect to see too wild, and definitely not too wet, of a celebration.

Like many things in the 2020 season, clinching will be done differently.

And like almost everything else with the 2020 expanded postseason, including plans for neutral-site bubbles in Southern California and Texas, details are still being worked out, even though there are barely two weeks remaining in the regular season.

Major League Baseball officials are finalizing plans for teams to do their celebrating on the field (even if on the road) rather than in a cramped clubhouse; to wear masks and maintain (some) social distance; and, most notably, to not pop champagne bottles, which they figure could lead to all kinds of health and safety protocols being violated.

Teams will be asked, one executive said, to celebrate "in more of a subdued manner.''

So the Rays get in without the rowdy party. Then what?

The playoffs are expanded to include eight teams from each league: three division winners as top seeds, three second-place teams next, and the remaining two teams with the best records as wild cards, slotted Nos. 7 and 8 in a basic bracket.

MLB has worked out a plan, with the best-of-three first round to be played entirely at the homefields of each league’s top four seeds, and winners advancing to the bubbles — AL teams in Los Angeles and San Diego; NL teams in Arlington, Texas, and Houston.

But it hasn’t yet worked out an agreement with the players union, which is necessary and needs to happen ASAP.

The most contentious issue with the players stems from the one most critical to the league, which is trying everything to limit COVID-19 cases that could interrupt or cancel the playoffs. That would impact the massive TV payoff of nearly $1 billion the owners are banking on to offset their significant 2020 losses. (Plus, there’s a $50 million pool for the players, who don’t get paid for the postseason.)

"I hope MLB listens to the union with all the concerns players have and we kind of give a little bit to get the playoffs to happen,'' Rays player rep Tyler Glasnow said.

The league has floated several ideas, all designed to separate players from their families to limit exposure.

One is to have players and staff for contending teams quarantine at a hotel for their final week of home games and the opening round of the playoffs before moving on to the bubble if they win.

That plan is getting pushback from players not seeing the need to change what has worked relatively well, as some have lived with their families all season.

It’s also problematic for the Rays logistically since they leave after Wednesday’s game for a seven-day trip to Baltimore and New York, then return home for a final weekend series. They kind of need to know whether to pack for one week or six. And if they should hug their families goodbye now, since they might only get a socially distanced visit, at best, when getting back to St. Petersburg.

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The other idea is to have the families quarantine for seven days in a hotel before rejoining the players during the playoffs. That is getting more opposition as players and staff with young kids say that would be unrealistic, if not untenable.

"I know how wild and crazy my (22-month-old) little son, Karter, is,'' Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "He can’t, he’s legitimately not able to be trapped in a hotel room for seven days.''

The tradeoff MLB is offering is a more relaxed setting in the bubble, booking resort-style hotels, where players could roam and make use of the amenities (as NHL and NBA players have), as opposed to essentially being locked in their rooms like during the regular season. (Another option the league floated is allowing families that don’t quarantine to attend games but not to have close contact or stay with the players.)

Glasnow said the Rays have “a bunch of different opinions” on the plans, which is to be expected. Obvious party lines are the single players being more open to whatever and the players with families more concerned. The compromise might be a shorter quarantine period for all parties but with increased risk.

"If you’re in the owners' shoes, I completely understand that you’d take extra precautions,'' he said. "If one guy gets COVID, the whole playoffs can get shut down and that’s not good for anyone. That’s just too much money lost. … I think there’s a little too much on the front end, like having to fly to your hometown and quarantine in a hotel room for a week, and with kids (having to quarantine) and stuff.''

Assuming that gets worked out, there is still the matter of playing the division and league championship series and the World Series at neutral sites.

That idea is also based on limiting virus exposure by reducing travel during and, for some, after each series.

If the Rays win their best-of-three first-round series at the Trop (likely starting Sept. 29), they would head to Southern California for a best-of-five division series at either Dodger Stadium or Petco Park, with the highest seed picking. If they advance, then a best-of-seven AL Championship Series at Petco.

The NL teams would do the same in Texas; its rep could have a slight benefit as the NLCS and World Series will be played at Arlington’s new Globe Life Field.

The neutral sites rob the top-seeded teams of what, even without fans, was still a homefield advantage in terms of comfort, familiarity and resources. But it’s 2020.

"It’s not going to be perfect,'' Glasnow said. "Everyone knows this year is weird, so you’re going to have to put up with some uncomfortable stuff. This entire year has been weird and uncomfortable. It’s kind of a disadvantage, I guess. I’ll just go back to, it is what it is.''

Rays rumblings

The Rays were excited to get Pedro Martinez, the 19-year-old infield prospect, from the Cubs in the Jose Martinez trade. As short as they were on arms earlier, given all the pitching injuries, they might have benefited from signing the better-known Hall of Famer as well, even at age 48. … Third-base coach Rodney Linares joined catcher Michael Perez in wearing No. 21 on Thursday in honor of the late Roberto Clemente and also calling for the number to be retired leaguewide, as No. 42 is for Jackie Robinson. … How bad has it been going for the Yankees? YES Network analyst John Flaherty talked of their skid in context of what he went through as a catcher with the 2002 Devil Rays, who lost 15 straight. … Singer Justin Timberlake is the latest big name to join the group seeking to bring a team to Nashville, in addition to sexy back. … The New York Times is the latest to feature the amazing story of Enrique Oliu, the blind-since-birth Rays Spanish-language radio broadcaster. … Rays officials are still discussing options regarding participating in the fall instructional league. … Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of St. Petersburg-based Minor League Baseball announced his retirement effective Dec. 31. That’s one of many major changes coming soon to the minor leagues. ... The Athletic’s Jim Bowden gave the Rays a C for their trades leading up the deadline.