I turn on the television at 3:40 ET Monday afternoon and see Chris Bassitt, in that resplendent kelly green A’s jersey, warming up to face the Los Angeles Angels in an afternoon game on a bright, sunny day in Oakland, California. Mike Trout will hit second for the Angels. Shohei Ohtani is back in the lineup as the designated hitter, the day after he failed to record an out in his official return to pitching. Albert Pujols, in an acknowledgement to Father Time, is batting sixth for the Angels, but it’s still Albert Pujols and we should appreciate every at-bat as his MLB career winds down.
It’s a baseball game, and I think I’m happy it’s on — that reassuring background noise that creates the rhythm of summer for the sport’s fans.
I also watch it with a giant pit of distress churning in my gut.
It had been a wonderful opening weekend of baseball. Kyle Hendricks tossed a complete-game shutout on Friday to give David Ross a win in his first game as Cubs manager. Eric Hosmer, in those sweet new Padres pinstripes, knocked in six runs in San Diego’s opener. The Braves’ Marcell Ozuna stunned Edwin Diaz and the Mets with a game-tying, two-out home run in the ninth on Saturday, and even the cardboard cutouts at Citi Field cried in misery. In the most audacious of events, the Rays’ Ji-Man Choi, a left-handed batter, turned around to bat right-handed against Blue Jays southpaw Anthony Kay and somehow, improbably, hit a home run.
The first weekend of our short season also produced this unusual result: For the first time since 1954, no team started 3-0. Every team won at least one game. The Giants even split their four-game series with the Dodgers. It was a fun, interesting, exciting start to this chaotic sprint to the postseason. It might actually work.
Then we woke up Monday morning to the sobering reality of 2020. After having four players test positive for the coronavirus before Sunday’s game, seven more Marlins players and two coaches had tested positive, according to a report by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The Marlins’ two-game series in Miami against the Orioles was postponed. The Yankees-Phillies game in Philadelphia, where the Marlins had just played, also was postponed. It had taken just three days for a worst-case scenario — a major outbreak — to hit the sport.
“My level of concern went from about an eight to a 12,” emotional Nationals manager Dave Martinez said before his team’s game. “This thing really hits home now that you’ve seen half a team get infected and go from one city to another. I have friends on that Miami team, and it really stinks. I am not going to lie or sugarcoat anything. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for anybody. I have guys in our clubhouse that are really concerned as well, and for me, this is my family.”
Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said this needed to serve as a wake-up call for players and was “hopeful that it scares them a little bit.”
“We’ve been good at this, but we could be better,” he said.
Indeed, it was clear in watching the games over the weekend that players hadn’t stuck to all the protocols outlined in the 113-page manual, such as wearing masks in the dugout and avoiding high-fives. Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo even said Monday he wasn’t too concerned. “No, it doesn’t make me more cautious. I still want to go out there and have fun, try and make this as normal as possible,” he said, echoing large swaths of America, where a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus persists.
A’s first baseman Matt Olson, however, said Monday morning after hearing the Marlins’ news that he was considering wearing a mask while playing in the field — and he did. Like a few other players, Trout had already been wearing a mask while on the bases, and when he reached first against the A’s, we saw him and Olson side by side in their masks, the perfect symbol of this entire fragile enterprise.
There was also outrage. Dodgers pitcher David Price, who had already opted out of the season, tweeted his disgust: “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.”
Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “Underneath all the discussions and elaborate plans to reopen various sports — MLB, the NBA and NHL now, and the NFL and college football by the end of next month — has been one naive assumption: If the virus hit a team, it would infect one or two players. Maybe three. But the sense was things still would be manageable. You could still field a team. When did this become the highest of all human goals?”
Commissioner Rob Manfred went on MLB Network and attempted to quell any belief that the season was suddenly in jeopardy. He said the outbreak wasn’t a “nightmare” scenario. “We built protocols anticipating that we would have positive tests at some point during the season,” Manfred said. “The protocols were built to allow us to play through those positives. We believe the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe.”
Manfred pointed to the expanded rosters and the 60-player pool teams can draw from to fill their current 30-man rosters as plenty of backup to cover the Marlins. In other words, losing 11 players isn’t enough to destroy the season — at least not yet. The line we’ve all wondered about still remains unknown.
I don’t blame baseball — and by baseball, I refer to the owners, to league and team officials, and to the players — for wanting to try to make this work. I want it to work. But it feels like a tightrope walk in the middle of a hurricane. Indeed, league sources indicated that the outbreak on the Marlins might have started from the team’s charter flight following Wednesday’s exhibition game in Atlanta. If that’s accurate, it’s a reminder of the delicate nature of keeping everyone virus-free. One flight attendant, one girlfriend who spends the day at a crowded beach, one bartender at the hotel … it doesn’t take much for half a team to suddenly be out of action.
We need to prepare for more outbreaks. For example, maybe every team doesn’t end up playing the full slate of 60 games. The Marlins and Orioles are scheduled to play in Baltimore on Wednesday and Thursday, so if the Marlins pass their new round of tests, maybe those teams play two doubleheaders to make up the lost games. Likewise, the Phillies and Yankees play each other on Wednesday and Thursday at Yankee Stadium. There are additional off days throughout the season, but obviously the league wants to limit extra travel as much as possible. If extra caution means postponing more games or canceling them altogether, then postpone or cancel more games.
As we worry about the future of baseball in 2020 and the likelihood of playing this season, the virus continues to spread, worse in some states than others. As I type this, the New York Times reports a 13% increase in new cases compared to 14 days ago and a 27% increase in deaths from 14 days ago. Total deaths in the U.S. are approaching 150,000.
Yet I’m watching Bassitt toss four scoreless innings. Mark Canha homers and flips his bat. Trout goes 0-for-4 with a walk, Pujols singles and five A’s relievers complete the shutout win. Later on in the evening, I see Evan White of the Mariners jump all over a Josh James fastball for the first home run of his career. Mike Foltynewicz of the Braves, an All-Star two seasons ago, gets pounded in his season debut and then is shockingly designated for assignment. We get an update that Stephen Strasburg threw “very lightly” on Monday.
I think back to Martinez, who had heart surgery last year on his way to managing the Nationals to the World Series title. “I’m scared,” he had said. “I go from here, home, back here every day. That’s all I do. I wash my hands. I went from 47 times a day to probably 99 times a day. Wear my mask everywhere I go.”
The games go on. The news goes on. None of it makes me feel good.