One of the best things about baseball is that it runs from spring training in mid-February through October and the World Series. That’s over eight glorious months. And from April through September, for die-hard fans, there are multiple games to take in and box scores to devour every day. As Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) said in the opening scene of the 1988 baseball classic film “Bull Durham,” "It’s a long season and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”
But this year, like all houses of worship and so many things we love yet take for granted, baseball became a victim of the pandemic. Spring training was shut down and the season delayed. Then after months, Major League Baseball announced that the normal 162-game grind would be shortened to just 60 games. For those of us who live and breathe baseball — and desperately needed a diversion from 2020 — we couldn’t wait for the season to begin, even while knowing that epidemiologically and ethically it was problematic.
Players acted a little too 'normal'
The Opening Night game last Thursday pitted the New York Yankees, the team I grew up rooting for, against the defending champion Washington Nationals, the team I have become a passionate fan of and season ticket holder for since it moved to the District of Columbia in 2005. While I couldn’t be at the ballpark — no fans could — I could still put on my Nats jersey with relief pitcher Sean Doolittle’s old No. 62 on the back, cook up a couple of hot dogs, open a cold beer and enjoy baseball. It was great to be back to “normal.”
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Over the rest of the opening weekend, I watched parts of about 10 games from across the country, glad to finally be putting my MLB-TV subscription to use. Almost immediately, I couldn’t help but worry about the players, coaches, other team employees and their families. I had read that MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association had agreed to strict safety and health protocols, including things like no spitting, no high-fives and no celebrations after home runs. Yet in every game I watched there were blatant violations.
I saw one pitching coach visit the mound with a mask only partially covering his mouth and his nose was fully exposed (according to the protocols, all coaches are supposed to wear masks in the dugout, though it's optional on the field), and in every game players were spitting all over (as ballplayers are apt to do for whatever reason) and high-fiving.
Nats’ shortstop Trea Turner leaped into catcher Kurt Suzuki’s arms for a big, prolonged hug after hitting a home run. First baseman Matt Olson clubbed a monster, walk-off, grand slam home run to win Opening Day for the Oakland A's, then he was mobbed at home plate by his teammates and got doused with a cooler. All no-nos.
The violations continued into this week. On Tuesday, players cleared the benches and there was almost a brawl between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros. So much for social distancing.
And these were the obvious things on the field. What was happening in the clubhouses, on the flights and bus rides, in the hotels and restaurants?
A coronavirus comeback
Then, not even a week into the season, USA TODAY Sports reported Tuesday that 15 Miami Marlin players and two staff members tested positive for the virus, and that the team was suspending its schedule. This surprised no one who watched any games this week except apparently MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred: “We expected we were going to have positives at some point in time. I remain optimistic that the protocols are strong enough that it will allow us to play even through an outbreak like this and complete our season.”
Jordan Barab, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration official and lifelong Dodger fan, told me, “There will be more outbreaks among more teams. You’ve got somewhere between 100-150 people comingling, and given the ages and other risk factors of many of the support crew, it’s only a matter of time before some of them are hospitalized or worse.”
Let’s face it, as much as I hate to say it, and as much as I will miss baseball, this season should be canceled. It is much too risky to continue. And it didn’t have to be this way. Sports are back in many countries that did a better job of handling the pandemic. On Sunday, South Korean fans were permitted to attend baseball games for the first time, limited to 10% of the stadium’s capacity. Also on Sunday, South Korea reported just 58 additional cases of COVID-19.
America continues to take a pounding from the virus and leads the world in cases largely because President Donald Trump has proved to be incompetent in providing the leadership and a plan to get us on track. It feels like he has surrendered.
Nats pitcher Doolittle said back in early July:
“We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down. And, like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward for a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve."
Professional baseball is a nearly $11 billion business. If it can’t get its act together and pull this off safely, perhaps canceling the shortened season will serve as a wake-up call that nothing is “normal” in this pandemic and that premature openings, like many are proposing for school districts that aren’t ready, will only backfire and put our teachers, kids, school employees and their families at great risk, just like the baseball community.
It’s heartbreaking for those of us starved for baseball and hoping for a diversion, but until we get the coronavirus under control, America doesn’t deserve baseball.
Steve Rosenthal, president and founder of The Organizing Group, is president of the Working for Us PAC. A former associate deputy Labor secretary in the Clinton administration and a former AFL-CIO political director, he is a lifelong baseball fan and writes an occasional blog about the Washington Nationals.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Marlins coronavirus outbreak: Major League Baseball must cancel season