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Volume 26 No. 225
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MLB Season Begins With Presence Of Coronavirus At Every Turn

MLB's coronavirus testing and procedures appear to be working so far through exhibitions
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB's coronavirus testing and procedures appear to be working so far through exhibitions
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB's coronavirus testing and procedures appear to be working so far through exhibitions
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The MLB season is scheduled to begin tonight, and it is "hard to believe that baseball actually made it this far after a four-month shutdown, a bitter five-week labor battle and the arduous health protocols that require a 108-page manual to follow," according to David Lennon of NEWSDAY. However, the "omnipresent threat of the coronavirus puts each night’s game in jeopardy." The league's testing plans to date "appear to be working as planned." While 80 players have tested positive since late June, the "frequency of those positives has steadily declined with each screening round." Despite that, there remains the fear of the virus "sneaking through MLB’s meticulously constructed firewall, either to spark a debilitating outbreak that cripples a team or, even worse, makes a player or club employee critically ill" (NEWSDAY, 7/23). In DC, Dave Sheinin writes MLB in '20 "will be a sport transformed -- bent, twisted, compacted and stripped of much of its ancient, sensory charm." Baseball's "traditional existence as a nightly escape will be overlain with the sobering realities of American life in the summer of 2020 ... to the point where its chief missions of entertaining the nation and identifying a champion will become almost secondary to the duty of keeping everyone safe." The larger question for now is "whether the sport can pull off even that short a schedule over these next two-plus months, plus a postseason in October, without having to abort." It is "as much a science experiment as a championship pursuit" (WASHINGTON POST, 7/23).

SHOWING CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM: In Pittsburgh, Julian Routh noted MLB stakeholders fielding questions from U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) "expressed cautious optimism about their 60-game season, insisting they've done all they could -- at this point in time -- to disease-proof their beloved game against the risks of COVID-19." However, the success "will depend partly on factors outside their control, they acknowledged, which could threaten to complicate the league’s months-long preparation and force officials to improvise." MLB Medical Dir Dr. Gary Green said, "While we certainly all want to see baseball played again, our No. 1 priority is the health and safety not only of the players and staff, but also the surrounding community." MLB Senior VP & Deputy General Counsel for Labor Relations Patrick Houlihan said that a "'patient, thoughtful, analytical' and 'safety-first' approach ballooned into a 100-plus-page protocol manual written from scratch" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 7/22). Liberty Media President & CEO Greg Maffei said MLB has "done a good job of building a series of protocols to make sure, as much as possible, that we are safe." Maffei: "I suspect the players are far safer in the environment that MLB has created than they would be in their home environments, unregulated and untested in the same way" ("Squawk on the Street," CNBC, 7/22).

KEEPING FINGERS CROSSED: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Jared Diamond noted the next few weeks "will go a long way toward showing whether the season that's about to start reaches the finish line." Diamond wondered, "Is it safe to play baseball at a time when a potentially deadly illness that has already killed more than 140,000 Americans is rising in many parts of the country? Is it ethical for an entertainment product to use thousands of diagnostic tests a week, with an expedited turnaround time, when it often takes the average citizen a week or more to receive their results? What happens if a player, manager, coach or umpire contracts Covid-19 and gets severely sick -- or worse?" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 7/22). In Chicago, Rick Telander wrote with "every pitch, all we can do is wonder who might get sick, what a team will do if there's a sudden outbreak, whether we even will make it to the World Series?" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 7/22).

DANGERS PLAYING OUTSIDE A BUBBLE: In DC, Adam Zielonka writes just because the MLB season starts today, that "doesn't mean it is guaranteed to finish." Unlike the "bubble" environments for basketball and hockey, MLB "plans to have teams travel to home teams' usual stadiums for games." This "requires more logistical coordination to keep players free from coronavirus contamination than sealing them in a bubble" (WASHINGTON TIMES, 7/23). SI.com's Michael Rosenberg wrote if the virus "spreads quickly through one team, it could destroy the whole season, for any sport." MLB is "essentially setting up near 29 or 30 fires and hoping nobody gets burned." MLB is "coming back and going everywhere" and teams "will play in their home parks." That is a "very simple, obvious risk." Teams "will travel a lot -- not as much as normal, but still a lot" (SI.com, 7/22). 

INTO THE UNKNOWN: In N.Y., Tyler Kepner writes under the header, "Baseball Enters The Unknown." No one "ever knows exactly how" this season will unfold, but nobody living "has ever seen a season like this" (N.Y. TIMES, 7/23). Also in N.Y., Joel Sherman wonders, "How long will it take to normalize the national anthem becoming a forum for gestures toward social justice such as kneeling? Players distancing under canopies in the stands? Pitchers carrying a wet rag in their back pocket to gain moisture on the ball because they can no longer go to their mouths?" (N.Y. POST, 7/23). In Minneapolis, Chip Scoggins writes baseball "without noise is still baseball," but this season "will be a unique experience" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 7/23).

TRYING TO CREATE NORMALCY: USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale writes MLB now is "on center stage for the world to see," showing that even in the middle of a pandemic, it is "possible to have a sense of normalcy, providing everyone is responsible." Nationals P Sean Doolittle said, "It will be an important and kind of powerful statement when people are watching the game (Thursday) and there are guys in the dugout wearing masks and people are social distancing. ... We can be an example to not just other sports leagues but to the general public, and other large corporations, about what it's going to take to keep your employees and their families safe during a pandemic" (USA TODAY, 7/23).

BOWING TO TELEVISION? In L.A., David Ulin wrote this "Frankenstein's monster of a season" is "baseball with its soul removed." The only reason to put players on the field amid a pandemic is to "protect lucrative television contracts, and especially to capture a national audience with an October postseason." Given the surge in infections across the country, it is "not out of the question that this mad experiment will get shut down long before the World Series rolls around" (L.A. TIMES, 7/22). In DC, Thom Loverro wonders, "A 60-game season where the runner starts from second base at the start of each half inning when a game goes into extra innings. Does that sound like baseball or a television creation? Television, and the dollars it involves, after all, are the only reason the league is determined to pursue any of this risky behavior" (WASHINGTON TIMES, 7/23).