A few days in, the sound of the 2020 baseball season is that of an iPhone dropped from a height of three or four inches onto a tabletop.
Sean Doolittle, pitcher for the Washington Nationals and one of hundreds of players, coaches and staffers living the unsteady reality of the when and where, had Sunday morning been tested for COVID-19. Just like Major League Baseball’s protocols promised, he’d been tested two days after the last.
He’d worked for three months to prepare himself for baseball, to show up for teammates and himself, to earn his living, maybe to have a little fun. He’d leaned out in the saddle of his road bike, logging 30 miles several times a week, and regularly thrown into a net.
A couple days in, he looked into a camera from behind a desk and waved to the checkerboard of faces. He wore a sleeve that covered his face from the bridge of his nose to his Adam’s apple. He picked at the top when it slid down and exposed smears of darkness under his eyes, and plucked the fabric away from his mouth when he spoke.
They are trying. All of them. In 30 camps, men and women who resist the pangs of unease, elite athletes who suddenly don’t know what to do with their hands, confident people measuring every step as if appraising new legs. They’d like to play baseball, Doolittle included.
“I feel ready to go,” he said, “but, you know, as I sit here talking to you guys …”
He reached into his pocket, withdrew his phone, held it in front of his face and pecked at the screen.
“Let me. Hold on. Let me check something,” he said.
He flicked with his forefinger.
“Yeah, as I sit here talking to you guys, I still don’t have my test results from Friday’s test,” he said. “So, like, I got tested again this morning without knowing the results of my test from Friday. So, we gotta clean that up. Right? So that’s one thing that makes me a little nervous.”
That’s when the phone hit the table, a clunk that asked what’re we all doing here, a thud that echoed across a baseball landscape of daily positive tests and opt-outs, a clonk that sees a country too selfish or entitled or political or blind to play along and a league that, according to Doolittle, has not furnished Nationals personnel with the proper gear — masks, gowns, gloves — to ward off sickness.
“There’s a lot of players right now that are trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now,” Doolittle had said earlier. “That’s kind of where I am. I think I’m planning on playing. But, if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health, with all these things we have to worry about, and just kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out.”
Ten minutes before Doolittle had arrived, the Chicago White Sox announced they’d had two players test positive. When Doolittle left the room, and after a staffer had wiped down the chair Doolittle had occupied, Nationals manager Dave Martinez sat down and said two of his players had tested positive.
Eight players, three of them his own, along with the likes of David Price, Felix Hernandez, Ian Desmond and Mike Leake, have chosen to pass on the season, and you can hardly find a player not harboring some reservations about the risks that are coming.
A good part of the league’s workforce, its players, has one foot out of the door. The game is one thing. A game that can’t cover the lags in the system, that can’t live up to the promises it made after some early wobbles, that can’t deliver healthy players back to their families — and maybe that’s simply impossible — is another.
“Those results,” Doolittle said, “gotta be back. That’s one of the biggest things, there were a lot of guys that were on the fence that decided to try to play to see how this was going to go, because we were going to have our results within 48 hours. Hopefully that’s something we can address and improve moving forward.”
Like most, Doolittle was into day three. What’s out there, into the games, into the travel, into airplanes and hotels and buses, into a country that can’t be bothered, is a mystery.
“It’s been weird, man,” he said. “It’s been really weird. And that’s like one thing, I touched on it earlier, my mental health is something that I’m really going to have to stay on top of. I can already tell this is going to be a grind mentally, and I might go crazy before anything else. There’s this cloud of uncertainty. There’s this kind of, you’re always kind of waiting for more bad news. Every time I get a text message or something on my phone throughout the day I’m worried that it’s going to be some kind of bad news, like somebody in the league tested positive or somebody opted out or so-and-so broke protocol and there’s pictures of people going out on social media when they shouldn’t be. Like, there’s all these things. And, then, just the regular procedures of the day. It’s a lot. It’s very, very different. And unfortunately there’s not a long period of adjustments and there’s not a lot of room for error. So, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
And, well, since he was on a roll, Doolittle explained again how it looked from where he sat, in a mostly empty room, behind a table, on a chair that had been sanitized just for him. His wife has health issues that put her at higher risk than most during the pandemic. They are living separately because of it. Theirs are voices that carry some. They use them. They stand for good things, for good people, for a better us.
Beyond that, Sean Doolittle would really like to play baseball. But he’s not going to stand out there alone. That would be dangerous. That would be dumb.
“I do think it does bring to mind kind of where we’re at in our response to this as a country,” he said. “We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people. We’re way worse off as a country than where we were in March when we shut this thing down. 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 the reward of a functioning society. And we’re just trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve for a little bit but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we’re done with it. If there aren’t sports it’s gonna be because people are not wearing masks. The response to this has been so politicized. We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear masks. Social distance. Keep washing your hands. We can’t just have virus fatigue and think, ‘Well, it’s been four months we’re over it.’”
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