So we’re going to have a 2020 baseball season, are we?
I’m not liking my vision of how this could turn out.
I get that sports has historically been an outlet for the nation’s grief, as well as the world’s, and that baseball has a special place in this lore. But as I told the Forward Maryland Podcast last week, the COVID-19 pandemic might be a tougher opponent than even the most loyal sports fans anticipated.
Baseball has a rich history of bringing the nation together in troubled times. Even when the game’s biggest stars went off to serve their country in World War II, baseball played on, thanks to the efforts of Senators owner Clark Griffith, who helped persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to allow games to continue. Opening Day in Washington was delayed in 1968, when parts of the nation’s capital and many other cities burned in the civil unrest following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But the team played a full schedule, and the following year, D.C. Stadium was renamed in honor of Kennedy. The game also returned quickly in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in 2001, when Cal Ripken Jr.’s impeding retirement, Derek Jeter’s heroics, and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ resilience again rallied the nation. Baseball even continued during the flu pandemic following World War I.
But this time, the pandemic, and the way it’s being handled domestically, might be bigger than the game. True, sports are being played in other countries. The Korean Baseball Organization season seems to be playing out as well as everyone involved had hoped. But testing, contact tracing, and public monitoring protocols are much more stringent in Korea, and Americans have already balked at less stringent restrictions.
We’re already seeing that MLB’s testing protocols are not going as planned. As is the case with testing for most Americans, results are delayed. Many Americans’ lives and livelihoods depend on efficient, accurate results. Should baseball players get any kind of prioritization when other people have to wait?
Delays in results have already caused teams to cancel workouts, and players like Sean Doolittle have openly questioned whether it’s safe moving forward. One of the game’s most popular players, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, is ill after testing positive. Other teams have seen positive tests, but aren’t releasing the names of the players who test positive.
I am happy for players like Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and others who have decided their health and that of their families is more important than the risk of playing. But I’m also happy for guys like Max Scherzer, who is apparently so keyed up to play ball that he was busy throwing live BP at a facility where secret practice games with other big league stars took place. But can we really make everyone happy?
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting more than 50,000 new cases in the past 24 hours, it’s clear the virus is not under control, and many lives are still at risk.
Two scenarios could play out, neither of them good for baseball. 1) Teams will continue to get positive results, more players will opt out, and maybe a whole team can’t field players. MLB would have little choice but to cancel the season. As fans, we’d be no better off than we are now, and the players would definitely be worse off. 2) The rate of positive tests and illnesses will be low enough that teams continue playing, but most of the top-tier stars opt out. Some teams will dig deep into their 60-man pools, and we’ll see quite a few career minor leaguers or raw youngsters getting their shot at the big leagues this year. Those would be the guys that baseball did not already throw under the bus by releasing them after contracting their teams.
Most of the superstars don’t need to play this season to feed their families, and that’s a good thing. But for some players who get called up this season, even the minimum major league salary will represent a big pay bump. Many of those guys will need to maximize their earnings this year because they may never get another shot at the big leagues.
We might see a lot of crazy things in the 2020 baseball season. With new rules and fringe players stepping into bigger roles, anything can happen. Still, it’s likely someone’s career will end in an empty stadium during a shortened season that may never come to a conclusion. Maybe the end of someone’s career or season will happen because they get sick with COVID-19, or maybe it will happen because of an injury that might not have happened otherwise.
There are plenty of reasons to attempt a 2020 baseball season, but there seem to be even more reasons not to. It might be compared to an average runner blowing through a stop sign at third base, with two out and one of the best outfield arms in the league throwing home. It looks like we’re heading for an ugly collision at the plate.
I hope I’m wrong.