This Friday marks three months since Major League Baseball’s originally-scheduled Opening Day, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement. By this point in the season, we would have been analyzing where the Mets stood in the standings, celebrating the players who made the All-Star team—and criticizing the snubs—and theorizing what trades could help give the team a much-needed second-half boost.
Late last night, 30 MLB owners voted to have Commissioner Rob Manfred implement a 60-game season as per the terms of the March 26 agreement. This means that the likelihood is that we will see something close to a 60-game season starting on or around July 24-26 with players reporting to camp by July 1. The news came after the league and the Major League Players Association feebly attempted for weeks to come to an agreement on what the season would look like, as well as provisions such as expanded playoffs and the universal DH.
People who are desperate for any semblance of normalcy, which involves watching baseball for many of us, grew frustrated by the lack of progress and the growing possibility that the sport may simply not return this calendar year. Even with the latest news coming as a welcome relief to some, the betrayal may be far too great for others, with some fans proclaiming that they would stay away if the two sides can’t put aside differences and put a season, if you can believe the Twitter discourse and the exasperated pleas from many national and local beat writers.
I have never pretended to be one of those fans. In fact, I see myself as the exact opposite. To be perfectly blunt, I do not see a need for baseball to return in 2020. My stance is not one that’s guided by anger at the present state of the labor strife or anything related to the rule changes that will affect what the sport will look like when it returns. I, along with what I’m willing to bet is a not-insignificant faction of fans, simply do not believe it is currently safe to play the sport in America in 2020, and see its return more as a potential catastrophe than a joyous celebration of victory over the virus.
While it’s easy to forget about the virus because New York and the northeast region of the country has overall done an admirable job in flattening the curve after a particularly rocky period back in March and April, the coronavirus threat is still very real and ever-present. As it stands now, at least 23 states in the country have seen a spike in the seven-day average of daily new cases, a trend that, despite what some would like you to believe is a result in increased testing, is a growing sign that the virus continues to spread along large parts of the country. Last week, Texas saw a record number of hospitalizations from the virus, while sunbelt states are being hit particularly hard after prematurely opening up and easing certain restrictions to help curtail the virus’s spread. Florida alone saw a record 4,000-plus new cases in one day over the weekend.
The latter is particularly troubling and caused teams to announce that they would hold spring training in their home ballparks. The trouble is that there are two Florida teams who cannot avoid playing their home games in the state. Then, when you factor in teams playing in Georgia, Texas, California, and Arizona, all of which are having trouble suppressing the virus, there is a lot that could potentially go wrong here. It’s also important to note that, if the season were to begin given the current shape the 2020 season would take, the Mets would be traveling to Florida and Georgia as part of their schedule, which would put players at unnecessary risk.
As if playing in front of an empty stadium isn’t bad enough, Texas’s governor announced in early June that the state intends to welcome 50% capacity at sporting events as part of its reopening plan, effective immediately. This would encourage teams like the Rangers and Astros to gain back some of their financial losses with fans in the seats, which could result in other teams seeing a financial opportunity and opening up their stadiums to fan attendance. This would only serve to aggravate an already-aggravated problem.
Baseball, which has been on the shelf solely because of coronavirus—a fact many seem to forget amid the recent tensions between the owners and players—got an unpleasant reminder on Friday of the looming danger of the disease when the Phillies experienced an outbreak at their camp with five players and three employees testing positive so far. Following that news, the Blue Jays and Astros also announced positive cases in their organizations, and the Angels followed up with two positive cases on Saturday. To date, 40 personnel league-wide have tested positive for COVID-19.
On top of that, the NHL and NFL saw positive cases on Friday, with more undoubtedly to follow. And yet, each of these sports is proceeding with plans to continue with a 2020 return. It says a lot about the shift in attitude when, back in March, one single positive case in the NBA shut down each of the major sports leagues indefinitely, yet news of so many cases now seems to leave a large majority of the decision-makers in the league, as well as fans, unphased.
A lot of fans and writers will and have already made the argument that the virus will likely not be particularly damaging to an in-shape athlete. They view it as a minor inconvenience that would simply require an IL stint. They proclaim that catching the virus would be a short-term problem, and one that should not preclude sports from returning this year. The notion seems to split coronavirus cases into two factions: those who die and those who survive.
This kind of thinking disregards the potential long-term health hazards, which we are still not entirely clear on. Many have reported symptoms for weeks following their recovery, with a recent study showing that many who have been infected could have lung problems down the road even if they were asymptomatic. This doesn’t even take into account athletes who are more susceptible, who will likely be able to opt out without losing salary, athletes living with family members who are more susceptible—they will likely not be able to opt out without losing salary—and coaches, clubhouse personnel, and staff who are older and, as a result, more at-risk to serious consequences should they contract the virus. Then there’s the case of 23-year-old footballer Junior Sambia, who was placed in a coma while combatting the virus in April, despite being in peak physical condition.
Do you really want to risk getting notifications halfway through a shortened season that Jacob deGrom or Pete Alonso has tested positive for coronavirus? Are fans prepared to hear that some of their favorite athletes are, one by one, coming down with COVID-19 as a result of traveling or playing on the field? Do we want to risk the possibility that the long-term effects could ruin careers for the short-sighted pleasure of watching a largely unfulfilling season in which the validity of the World Series winner will debated for years anyway? Are we saying another year is too much to wait to hopefully get things back to a little bit more like something resembling normal? I think people are building up a potential 2020 season to way more than it will be, not realizing that it could be unsatisfying and downright depressing given the lack of fans, players social distancing and unable to high-five, and the all-around eerie nature of what baseball in a coronavirus world could look like.
Baseball fans stateside have pointed to sports returning in a host of other countries, including baseball leagues resuming everywhere from South Korea to New Zealand. In some instances, fans have even been allowed to return to those stadiums to cheer on their favorite teams. Simply put, those countries have either eradicated or subdued the virus to such a degree that they have earned their sports back almost as a reward. We do not deserve to reward ourselves for a job half-finished, especially when people are still falling ill at an alarming rate in parts of our country. As much as we all love sports, they are absolutely not essential to everyday life and could only exacerbate a situation with the lone reward being a temporary end to our boredom. We will reach that point, but it’s far too premature right now.
I was personally wishing that cooler heads will eventually prevail. With the negotiations deteriorating the way they did, both sides would have been better served saving grace after an ugly war of words and saying that, following the recent coronavirus surge in the MLB community, they will not be proceeding with plans to resume the season and will focus their efforts on putting on the safest possible 2021 season. This would have been a level-headed plan that could have spared a number of players from an unnecessary risk. If players can’t agree to the health and safety protocol, this still may end up being an option that all sides should consider.
A lot has been made about the power of sports in times of great grief, and as somebody who witnessed it first-hand post-9/11, I can attest to it being a wonderful moment that helped start the healing process. But without the ability to gather and heal or celebrate together, the experience this time around could feel hollow, I would imagine. Baseball, at best, would serve as a temporary distraction amid our growing pain, and one that should be put on hold for the safety of all who are involved. Baseball will return one day, and fans will pack the ballparks and cheer for home runs and strikeouts. We’ve waited this long after all, what’s a few months more?