Like every baseball fan, I waited nearly nine months for the first meaningful pitch in the first meaningful game of the 2020 Major League Baseball season.
And when it finally happened on July 23, when the Washington Nationals’ All-Star pitcher Max Scherzer threw a first-pitch ball to Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees, I felt giddy joy — and more than a twinge of trepidation.
It took only a few days to amplify the unspoken, but obvious: Baseball is great, but not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
For nearly a week, the Miami Marlins have been off the field after at least 19 players and coaches tested positive for coronavirus. That this was inevitable during a season played in the deepening shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic made the news no less stunning. On Thursday, the Philadelphia Phillies, the last team to have played the Marlins, suspended all stadium activities until further notice after several staffers tested positive. Then on Friday, positive tests among players on the St. Louis Cardinals forced the cancellation of their game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
As other sports prepare to open their own abbreviated seasons, the nagging question grows more insistent: Is the inherent risk worth it?
Some players already delivered their answer by choosing not to participate this season. In early July, David Price, the former Red Sox pitcher now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, became one of the most high-profile players to opt out. He tweeted, “After considerable thought and discussion with my family and the Dodgers, I have decided it is in the best interest of my health and my family’s health for me to not play this season.”
After news about the Marlins broke, Price chided Rob Manfred, MLB’s commissioner. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?!” Price tweeted. “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”
Speaking to ESPN about the Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak, Manfred said: “I don’t put this in the nightmare category. It’s not a positive thing, but I don’t see it as a nightmare. That’s why we have the expanded rosters. That’s why we have the pool of additional players.”
If more than a dozen infected players and coaches isn’t a nightmare, I don’t want to know what terrifies Manfred. This isn’t about expanded rosters or additional players. This is about the well-being of the players, coaches, and staff. MLB has now expanded its health and safety protocols, including encouraging players to stay hotel-bound during road trips except for games, and requiring teams to travel with a compliance officer to make sure everyone is adhering to orders.
Every move is designed to make the game safer, but the only safe solution is not to have a season at all. And it makes my heart heavy to say that.
To be clear, watching baseball again has brought me closer to normalcy than anything else during these months of uncertainty and isolation. I was born the same year as my beloved New York Mets, and grew up less than a mile from Shea Stadium, now Citi Field. So many memories are linked to the game: evenings at Shea with my father, listening to late innings on the radio with my grandmother, and plotting with friends to skip school and buy grandstand seats at an afternoon game for a few bucks.
An ebony box near my desk still holds some of the baseball cards I collected, occasionally bought with money my parents gave me for the church collection plate. (The Lord, I convinced myself, would understand.)
In baseball, I’ve found elation, distraction, and heartbreak. Now I also feel ill at ease — not from a shaky start or a late-inning error — but over the well-being of the men I’m rooting for or against.
I can abide the cardboard cutouts substituted for fans, and the weird piped-in crowd noise. Much harder is the news that Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez is suffering from COVID-19-related myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Injuries in sports are common; playing a game under the threat of a disease that has claimed more 150,000 Americans is not.
Now some will claim that baseball is safer than other sports because it is mostly played outdoors. We’ll see, but the field is not the only place players can get infected. What’s happening to the Marlins will strike other teams. Athletes will quarantine, games will be postponed, and we’ll call it “the new normal.” Others players may decide the risk is too great, the added restrictions too draconian for grown men who might prefer the comfort of their homes and family.
As baseball’s first week stumbles into the next, the games will go on, and we’ll try to pretend that hitting streaks, box scores, and bullpen strength are all that matter, as if this were any other lazy summer. I can’t lie — I may still watch some games. But that doesn’t mean I’ll shake the queasiness of a season that feels more like an ill-fated experiment than the national pastime.