We always knew it was a house of cards. Now it’s falling down.
The Marlins are in the throes of a COVID-19 outbreak, with as many as 12 players and two coaches testing positive for the virus, according to ESPN. Just three games into this nascent baseball season, they postponed both games of what would have been their home opening series Monday and Tuesday in Florida. The Yankees-Phillies game in Philadelphia also was postponed, since the Marlins apparently left the visitors clubhouse there a coronavirus hot zone.
Four days into the truncated, compressed schedule and we’re already two games down, and that’s not all the virus is doing to disrupt baseball’s return to action. Here at home, the Red Sox are without ace Eduardo Rodriguez because his recovery from COVID-19 was set back by myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle that’s an occasional complication of a viral infection.
In other words, the hits are coming from both ends, affecting groups and individuals alike, from the rapid spread in close quarters in Philly to the long-term ramifications on one healthy young athlete in Boston, who had already emerged from the acute phase of the illness.
This is hard. This is sad. This is scary and this is real.
From those sincere feelings of joy upon the baseball’s return Thursday night to these similarly heartfelt expressions of concern about the threat the game is under now, the only thing certain is uncertainty.
Baseball may have to shut it down. Football, both NFL and college, may not be able to get started. Nobody who loves sports wants that to be true, but this pandemic has already taught us wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so, at least not without a coherent plan of action, and even then there are no guarantees.
As for the theory making the Internet rounds that the media are somehow rooting for the worst-case scenario, that we represent some monolithic groupthink ready for a schadenfreudian burst of “I told you so” to those who want to push forward regardless? Please. We make our living watching sports. We chose that because we love sports. We miss them intensely, not because they fund a bottom line, but because they feed a beating heart.
We jumped into their staggered return with two feet, sending reporters to the NBA bubble, getting reports from the NHL hubs, eagerly anticipating the start of NFL training camps, watching golf and NASCAR when nothing else was going on, delighting in seeing local hero Kristie Mewis win an NWSL soccer title with the Houston Dash, and congratulating the Boston Cannons on their Major League Lacrosse title.
We understood what Rodriguez was saying on a conference call Sunday, when he dismissed the notion of opting out with four quick bursts of “No,” followed by one heartfelt explanation.
“I want to be pitching yesterday, the day before, or today,” he said. “I want to be out there every time I can, so I’m never thinking of getting out of the season. I feel bad every time I see a game happening and I’m not even in the dugout.”
He knows he’s balancing his own health with his team’s needs, and yet he insisted, “I love baseball too much. I love this sport so much. Since I got this, I’ve had to stay here in my apartment, but I’ve been watching all the games. I’ve been seeing everything through the media.
“I love this so much that I can’t be just sitting around thinking about baseball. I’ve watched the two games already and I’m going to keep watching every game.”
Players want to play as much as we want them to play, but as much as hope can sustain us through difficult times, it is not an effective strategy against a virus that does not discriminate. As national expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned, the virus makes the timeline, not the sport. And its timeline at the moment is demanding a pause.
No one knows it better than Rodriguez, whose relatively young 27 years and whose finely tuned athletic physique were no match for a complication that, according to the Mayo Clinic, “can affect your heart muscle and your heart’s electrical system, reducing your heart’s ability to pump and causing rapid or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).”
That’s why doctors have told him to shut everything down, why he’s holed up watching baseball on television, why his day is basically limited to sitting, eating, and walking for fear of elevating his heart rate too much. Though he said he is not experiencing any frightening symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath, or anything close to the misery of COVID-19 a few weeks back, this is his heart we’re talking about.
“That’s the most important part of your body,” he said. “The first time I heard it, I was kind of scared a little. Now that I know what it is, I’m still scared, but now I know exactly what it is. I just talk to my mom, talk to my wife, let them know what I have, and now I’ve got to take the rest because that’s the heart — you don’t have to take the risk for that.”
Who would blame him if he did opt out? This season is already so strange, compressed to 60 games with travel limited to each team’s closest neighboring cities, with the Red Sox already facing long odds of championship contention. Rodriguez has two young children at home, and even if their risk of contracting the virus is low, there is no quantifying the desire for a healthy dad.
Risk. Reward. And the wide chasm in between. That’s where baseball is now. That’s where the NFL will be soon. I don’t have the answer, but I’m not sure the sports world does either. And that makes me sad.