Joe West, MLB's coronavirus conspiracy theory umpire, should sit out 2020 season

If Joe West didn’t have to wear a mask to protect himself from a 100 mph fastball flying into his face, you have to wonder whether he’d wear one at all.

West, one of MLB’s most well-known umpires, has outed himself as a coronavirus conspiracy theorist this week, which is not exactly the best look for a league trying to squeeze a 60-game season inside a pandemic with a safety plan that is 100 pages long.

As players wear masks during workouts, reveal new positive tests on the daily and opt out of the season because of fears for their safety and the safety of their families, West has been making headlines this week for shrugging at the coronavirus, like “Naw, I’ll be fine.”

In a move that was all too predictable based on his “Cowboy” Joe West persona, West told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he doesn’t believe figures that say 130,000 people have died from coronavirus in the U.S.:

“Those statistics aren’t accurate, I don’t care who’s counting them,’’ West said from his Florida home. “When country music [singer] Joe Diffie died, they said he died of the coronavirus. He had Stage 4 lung cancer. The coronavirus may have accelerated his death, but let’s be realistic.”

“Our system is so messed up they have emptied hospitals because there’s no elective surgery. The government has been giving these hospitals extra money if someone dies of the coronavirus. So everybody that dies is because of coronavirus. I don’t care if you get hit by a car, it’s coronavirus.’’

(West’s claim about Diffie was erroneous and twisted — the singer’s father had lung cancer.)

This follows another story earlier in the week, where the 67-year-old West said that even though he’s considered high-risk, he won’t sit out the 2020 season.

“If this game hasn’t gotten me by now, no virus is going to get me,” West told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. “I’ve weathered a bunch of storms in my life. I’ll weather another one.”

Joe West say he doesn't belieive the coronavirus is responsible for as many deaths as is being reported. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Joe West say he doesn't belieive the coronavirus is responsible for as many deaths as is being reported. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

West sounds like someone who has spent a lot of time on Facebook lately, looking at memes and rants from some guy he went to high school with who is definitely not a scientist or doctor.

West is not unique in this sense. Plenty of people are peddling coronavirus conspiracy theories these days. If anything, he represents the current divide in the country — people who are taking extra precautions even if they make them uncomfortable, and people who are causing public spectacles anytime someone at the local Costco tells them to wear a mask.

But West is unique in that his job relies on his judgment. An MLB umpire isn’t a Supreme Court justice, sure, but umpires do sit in a more exalted place than the heckling fan behind home plate. They should be leading by example.

This makes the next chapter in this saga even more surprising. The MLB Umpires Association released a statement Thursday re-assuring everyone that its members do take the coronavirus seriously, and that they plan to act professionally and follow all health and safety protocols. The statement didn’t call out West specifically, but it’s pretty clear the union had to go clean up West’s comments. The statement includes the phrase, “regardless of any umpire’s personal views.”

This is the same umpire’s union, you may remember, that had a social-media meltdown last season when Manny Machado got only a one-game suspension for “aggressively” arguing a called third strike with umpire Bill Welke. The union thought Machado deserved more, sent out a rant of a statement with an odd list of social media hashtags. The whole thing led to MLB saying the umpires union acted “inappropriately.”

A year later, seeing that same union distance itself from Joe West’s coronavirus rants should tell you everything you need to know.

West is free to believe what he wants, but this whole saga proves that unless he starts to take things more seriously, he may not be fit to umpire a season with stakes as high as this one.

Baseball’s plan for a safe and short season only works if everyone involved — literally EVERYONE — takes the threat of infection seriously. We’ve seen players opt out after teammates tested positive. We’ve seen Mike Trout running the bases in a mask and his mom trying to turn it into a PSA about mask-wearing. We’ve seen Trout, Kris Bryant, Buster Posey and others express some doubt about whether the league will be safe enough for them to feel comfortable.

Remember, baseball isn’t happening in a bubble. Teams are playing in their home parks and will travel from city to city (the schedule is more regional this year to make the travel easier) and they’ll have to count on everyone involved in that process. We’re talking bus drivers, hotel workers, luggage handlers, chefs, servers, clubhouse attendants and so on.

All it takes is one person not being responsible or saying “no virus is going to get me” and the coronavirus could knock out an entire clubhouse. That’s why players and the league have no room for failure.

And it’s why players deserve umpires who are going to take things just as seriously.

Where this debate often goes wrong, whether we’re talking about baseball games, restaurants or any other industry, is when people make it a political issue. It’s not. It’s a matter of common decency. It’s about caring for your neighbors, for their safety and their families’ safety.

If Joe West is selfishly going to shrug his shoulders at the gravity of the coronavirus, then he should opt out of the season. Or, he can look at the people around him, listen to the doctors and see how concerned players are about this.

Maybe he’ll see that he should take the coronavirus as seriously as he would a 100 mph fastball coming at his face.

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