Hey Baseball, Get Your Act Together and Pause the Season

More than any other professional American sports league, Major League Baseball has completely botched its restart. Since much of the country shut down in March amid the pandemic’s early stages in the United States, we’ve watched baseball consistently lag behind the rest of the major sports. As contract disputes amongst millionaires and billionaires left behind the minor leaguers and stadium staff from popular discourse, the sport looked to be racked with disunity and potentially looking to skip the 2020 season.

Maybe it should have.

As preseason concerns surrounding player health and safety were quelled during the summer camp or “Spring Training 2.0” in late June and early July, problems remained. Even disregarding the concerns surrounding prioritizing players for tests during a time when most Americans struggle to get tests, let alone one- or two-day turnarounds on test results, the restart process teetered on the line between morality and profiteering.

Now, after less than one week of games, all of the problems of playing sports during a pandemic have reared their ugly heads.

Most glaringly, players have been getting sick, and there does not seem to be a clear and complete plan in place for when that happens, despite an expanded operations manual with more than 100 pages of seemingly meticulous planning coming from MLB before the season began. A few hours before Dr. Anthony Fauci spiked the first pitch on Opening Day at Nationals Park in Washington D.C., the best player on the defending champion Nationals, 21-year-old Juan Soto, was scratched from the lineup. He’d tested positive for COVID-19 and was entering the mandatory quarantine, where he’s set to remain until he tests negative twice in 24 hours.

Should that game against the New York Yankees have even happened? Soto testing positive means other players certainly could have been exposed, right? Apparently not, and the game went on as planned without any more major hitches. That is, until lightning and torrential rain cut the game off at the knees in the fifth inning. 

From then on, concerns surrounding COVID-19 came up only sparingly during broadcasts and media coverage. Three more full days passed before pandemic panic recaptured the news cycle on Monday, during which time things began to feel more like normal. I could talk to my grandpa and dad about the Los Angeles Dodgers and could constantly text with my fantasy baseball league about players and games for the first time since we canceled our annual draft in March.

But now, players are getting sick even more often than they did at the beginning of summer camp, when players were being tested after spending months without any strict team-enforced guidelines at home. 

As of Monday afternoon, two MLB games have already been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns after more than half of the Miami Marlins traveling party, which includes players and coaches, have reportedly tested positive. They’ve postponed their game with the Baltimore Orioles on Monday and Tuesday and are sequestered in Philadelphia awaiting the results of a reactionary round of testing. 

Their most recent opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies, postponed their game with the Yankees to ensure the visitor’s clubhouse, which the Marlins occupied less than 12 hours prior, has time to be fully “fumigated” to disinfect any potentially contaminated surfaces.

This news came in just as reports of a potential pair of cases for the Cincinnati Reds’ Mike Moustakas and Nic Senzel made its way into headlines. Both reportedly were not feeling well as of Sunday and a teammate, Matt Davidson, tested positive days earlier. MLB did not postpone that game however, but thankfully a downpour stepped in once again to save the day … until the game started a few hours later. If rain can delay a game and push it to a later date this season, as it did Monday in Cleveland, shouldn’t games be delayed for test results to avoid more outbreaks? And if you can push the entire season back from March to July, couldn’t the entire league pause for a day or two? And how is this even a question I need to ask?

Fans were prepared for this — or at least they should have been. There was always the possibility that having sports during a pandemic would not work. And for the more astute observers, the lofty plans to protect players seemed destined to fail even after watching the first few two games of the new season on Thursday.

Broadcasters and viewers alike noted just how many protocol violations there were during each game. High fives and spitting, two of the major prohibited actions within MLB’s 2020 protocol, were decreased compared to a normal game, but many players were caught on camera doing both over the season’s opening weekend. Players and coaches often failed to wear masks inside of the dugout. And most glaringly perhaps, even umpires, the professionals selected to ensure players and coaches adhere to the rules of the game to uphold their own safety, failed to follow the rules. 

In an afternoon matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, July 25, tempers flared and after a player was ejected, an argument ensued between Pirates manager Derek Shelton and home plate umpire Jordan Baker. Shelton had a cloth mask and Baker stored a surgical mask in his pocket. After struggling to put on his clearly broken mask before confronting Shelton, Baker took the mask off his face during an especially heated portion of the encounter. Then Shelton’s mask slipped off his nose, exposing his nose and mouth. After both readjusted their masks after exchanging a few more words, Baker walked away. A few moments later, he returned to further discuss with Shelton and when he realized his mask was back in his pocket, he took off his cap and held it over his mouth. 

Come on guys. If we are going to bring back baseball for all of the economic, entertainment, and frankly mental-health benefits it can provide, the rules must be followed, and that goes for the players as well. These rules were not put in place arbitrarily. They are meant to limit the chances of spreading COVID-19 during events that would not normally be sanctioned in many cities. Without following the rules, it should come as no surprise that players and coaches are getting sick, which is exactly why players and fans were worried about restarting the season in the first place. If players are going to continue to play games this season, they must follow the rules they agreed upon and be ready to face consequences when they fail to do so.

The NBA has successfully punished players for violating protocol; why can’t baseball do the same to protect its players and season? Maybe too many players and really entire teams are not following protocol, and so MLB may feel they cannot effectively enforce rules for an entire team of delinquent players and coaches? This could certainly be the case. The NBA had already begun punishing players even before they’d played scrimmage games. In contrast, MLB teams played their televised intersquad and scrimmage games and despite having players breaking the rules at seemingly every turn, there was little to be heard from the league.

This really isn’t even solely a player health issue, it is a public health problem. For every five professional ballplayers high fiving and chatting without masks on TV, you can bet fans around the country relaxed their own “protocols” as well. If my idols aren’t wearing masks or doing their utmost to avoid exposure, then I must not need to either, right? Certainly, some fans must have made that connection and that cannot be perpetuated. 

Now that a few games have been postponed, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the rest of the league must come together and pause the season to reinforce the necessity of following protocols. Let players know that if there is a violation in the games following the pause, there will be a consequential punishment that will actually be enforced. Playing a season that should only have been played under the protocols’ guidelines without adhering to those guidelines should not be permitted. It will injure players, coaches, staff, and their families, not to mention send mixed signals to the fans that need the game almost as much as the players.

I’m one of the fans who’s been watching games all weekend long, whenever I could. But I didn’t just watch for fun to escape the pandemic and all of its stress. I watched because I was worried that baseball, like so many individuals around the country, would not do all they could to keep COVID-19 at bay. Sadly, watching a few hours of baseball confirmed those fears. 

I’m a huge baseball fan. I love MLB and so much of what it does for its players, its fans, and its communities has been beneficial, especially in recent years. But now, that love is starting to fade. Owners are failing to pay minor league players even a few hundred dollars a week to keep them afloat during the pandemic that canceled their season and are looking to eliminate minor league franchises that are the lifeblood of their small towns. Their inaction and inability to enforce the protocol they put in place to protect their players have jeopardized the very game they profit off of.

I’ve followed quarantining rules to the letter; I’ve seen friends in a socially distanced manner roughly once a month since mid-March. Baseball provides a new distraction and a valuable source for friends to talk about. My virtual fantasy baseball draft we conducted over Zoom was quite literally the best day of my year to this point in 2020 and having more baseball will certainly continue to make millions of lives better, even in some small way. Please baseball, get it right, for all of us. 

Photo Courtesy U.S. Air Force, photo by Todd Maki

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