If baseball's coronavirus plans fail, blame political leaders first

Baseball played in a pandemic is inherently precarious. The moral specter of whether sports are worth it, whether even trying is a sort of sin, hung over the whole operation from the start. Major League Baseball’s best hope, then, was always to be thorough. The first and last line of defense against both the coronavirus and ethical concerns is a 101-page document detailing exhaustive protocols designed to keep everyone involved safe. Or at least mitigate the risk to the most prominent people.

But less than a week into the so-called “summer camp” stage of the experiment, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a plan on paper isn’t nearly as important as the version implemented by fallible actors. At the human level as we all struggle to hermetically self-isolate; at an institutional level if MLB can’t even account for the logistical ramifications of a holiday weekend that tells you when it’s going to happen in the name.

An imperfect plan in the context of a highly communicative deadly virus is a dangerous one. Which is a long-winded way of saying: This might not work. We might not get a lot or even any meaningful baseball this season. Or, we might get the kind of disaster that makes an abrupt cancellation of the sport look like a best-case scenario. You can put this sobering reality in its proper place relative to all the other losses this year and still be really upset. So upset that you’re angry and demand to know what the hell went wrong — whose fault is this anyway?

Both of those questions deserve a thorough investigation and, besides, humans are vengeful lot. We like to think that identifying the right scapegoat will soothe our pain and restore a sense of justice. And in this case, the culpability is egregious enough and the gravity, well, grave enough that even if it takes a sports-less summer to inspire your indignation I encourage you to lean into it — and blame the government.

On July 3, the United States set a record high for new COVID-19 cases at 56,567. There were 10,433 new cases on March 24, the day that MLB suspended spring training. Those numbers are numbing after months of this (and the availability of testing affects the tally), but you have to understand: Despite months of sacrifice and scientific research, things are getting worse and not better. The coronavirus is a once-in-a-generation pandemic that knocked the wind out of the entire world, yes. Still, it didn’t have to be this way.

Last week, CNN published a damning look at the country’s coronavirus statistics. The headline pointed out that the U.S. accounts for only 4 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of COVID-19 cases worldwide. That was before this most recent stretch of record daily surges; over 4,000 American deaths ago.

The structural failures are vast and, in some ways, endemic to American society. But responsibility for the perpetual crescendo of the daily case-count charts lies squarely with the specific public officials — not least of all those in the White House — whose willful mismanagement has consequences far beyond baseball games. (But also, baseball games.)

“America’s position as the world’s leader in coronavirus cases and deaths is in large part the result of human error, and the still-rising caseload stands as a stark reminder of the blunders that have characterized the national response,” the Washington Post wrote in an accounting of federal failures based on 47 interviews. “Trump’s actions, and his position in the Oval Office, make him a central figure in any assessment of the country’s handling of the outbreak.”

There’s plenty of blame to be levied at the state and local level, as well, with the overarching issue being the politicization of public health and the partisanization of reality.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 02: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a baseball bat while looking at exhibits during a Spirit of America Showcase in the Entrance Hall of the White House July 02, 2020 in Washington, DC. The president visited with representatives from invited companies like Weber-Stephen Products, the Texas Timber Wood Bat Company, Scars & Stripes Coffee, Carolina Pie, Fruit of the Earth, Nautilus Fishing Company and others. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Seen here holding a baseball bat at a White House event on July 2, President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has ultimately kept cases rising in the United States and endangered the return of sports no matter how leagues plan for safety. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

That sounds buzzy and smug — like the subtitle on a podcast docu-series about this moment in American history, or a tweet that goes a little bit viral among people with #resistance in their bios. It’s a concept that feels at once quaint in its capacity for continued outrage that Donald Trump is not a very good president and insufficient for the actual stakes of the situation. Even quasi-apocalyptic movies imagine that a country under duress or alien invasion will act valiantly to save itself and protect its citizens rather than obfuscate critical data and undermine even the most easily actionable advice.

What this has to do with baseball is the same thing it has to do with schools reopening in the fall to allow parents to get back to work, or ordering delivery from local restaurants in an effort to keep them afloat even if it forces gig workers to come to your house. The safest path forward is to wait until the virus is quelled to resume discretionary activities — that was the standard in nations like South Korea and Japan where baseball has already resumed — except that the people in charge here seem incapable of putting the country on the right track. Individual actors and even powerful institutions are not prepared to navigate a pandemic indefinitely and without clear, consistent guidance and economic cushioning from the government.

In a country without sufficient social safety nets or a humane plan to keep people and corporations solvent during this time of unprecedented upheaval, businesses will attempt to reopen. It’s a debatable but ultimately inescapable outcome. You can say it’s craven, and maybe it is, for baseball to press on as if millions of dollars and thousands of jobs depend on it, but they do and it will.

As a result, people will get sick and it will be tempting to point fingers and interrogate the chain of events that led to the infections. If you look for them — and this is not to say you shouldn’t — there will be many cracks in the system: the player who went out for dinner without a mask, the plan to travel even regionally instead of isolating the season in one city, the inherent lag time between testing and results in conjunction with the everyday nature of the sport, the statistical inevitability of some level of mishandling with that many samples.

All of these personal and corporate failings merit disapproval and perhaps, in their predictability, amount to a compelling case to abstain from sports altogether or decry their progression at every turn. Outside of this particular column, it merits parsing between the institutional and individual levels of culpability within baseball — conflating player error and league incompetence only makes sense in comparison to the all-consuming failure of our federal government.

Ultimately, though, ferreting out relatively small-scale faults is soothing only insofar as it distracts from the more depressingly dire mismanagement-bordering-on-malevolence among policymakers.

Or, as Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a professor of law and psychology, wrote in The Atlantic about interpersonal shaming: “In the pandemic, this urge is a red herring; it is too easy to focus on people making bad choices rather than on people having bad choices.”

MLB is trying to build a boat in the middle of the ocean, and it makes a certain amount of sense to blame the shoddy craftsmanship for leaks. But the rising tide of coronavirus cases is the real problem. The water itself in this analogy is not an immutable force, rather the result of political malpractice. Always remember: It didn’t have to be this way.

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