Baseball's coronavirus crisis is America in miniature
This is what happens when you deny the reality of an unprecedented public health crisis
There was a brief moment this weekend when, if I squinted, I could pretend everything was normal. Yes, it required averting my eyes from the terrifying Sims-people Fox Sports had beamed into Wrigley Field, but there was sunshine outside, baseball on my TV, a beer in my hand, and a slice of pizza in the other. It felt so good, I was almost abashed to be enjoying it as much as I was.
Then, on Sunday night, the fantasy shattered. "Multiple sources confirmed that the [Miami] Marlins played [the Philadelphia Phillies] despite having three players learn Sunday that they'd tested positive for COVID-19, just two days after a fourth player learned of a positive test on Friday," The Athletic reported; an infectious-disease expert who spoke with the publication described the situation in the clubhouse as a "clear outbreak." Then on Monday, the Marlins reportedly learned of 10 more positive tests.
MLB is now confronting the inevitable. Because the reality is this outbreak was entirely foreseeable and — not unlike the premature reopening of the country — represents the grim consequence of operating in complete denial of facts during an unprecedented health crisis.
Ever since MLB announced it would be returning this month on a 60-game schedule, medical experts, fans, and sportswriters alike have blasted the idea, myself included. Unlike the NBA, WNBA, NHL, NWSL, and MLS, which at least are going through the motions of acting like there's a global pandemic by using static tournament locations to contain players and control the spread of disease, baseball's plan requires teams to continue to travel around the country like nothing's wrong (well, with the exception of Toronto's Rogers Centre, the only Canadian stadium, since Americans aren't allowed over the border). It might have been a fatal error. There had been minor cause for optimism during baseball's three-week long "summer camp" in Florida, when positive COVID-19 test rates in the league were only 0.1 percent, but as Emory University epidemiologist Dr. Zachary Binney put it to The Athletic, it took less than 96 hours of MLB's "real-time experiment in how COVID-19 transfers within the game" for everything to fall apart.
The Miami conundrum is not as simple as removing the Marlins from play, as leagues like the NWSL and MLS have done during their own localized outbreaks. Logistically, it's a nightmare — MLB, in proceeding with a regular season rather than a tournament, planned for teams to play 60 games across 30 ballparks in 17 states plus D.C., with little room for makeup games due to the shortened season. As of Monday afternoon, the Marlins, who were supposed to return to Florida to play the Baltimore Orioles in their home opener, were stuck in Philadelphia waiting for more test results, with their game postponed; the New York Yankees' away game against the Phillies was also postponed, out of concern about using the Marlins' recently-vacated locker room; and the league was reportedly anxiously waiting test results to see if the virus had been passed across the diamond to the Phillies themselves. The consequences of an outbreak have a ripple effect that could quickly grow into a tidal wave.
Worsening the situation is MLB's utter lack of a contingency plan; roller derby is currently more sophisticated and prepared for a season than baseball is. While MLB issued the teams a 113-page operations manual for its weird year, including processes on what to do if a player tests positive, there bafflingly seems to be no procedure in place about what to do if a team has an outbreak like the Marlins — an outcome that was foreseen by health professionals. (The testing business with the Phillies further emphasizes the league's utter ineptitude). Even more concerning, there doesn't seem to be a system in place to dictate when to call the season off: under an agreement with the players' union, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred apparently has "the right to suspend or cancel the season if enough players are sick that it undermines the sport's competitive integrity," The Wall Street Journal writes, although "the exact number for Manfred to trigger that clause isn't enumerated." (It's hard not to wonder, too, what the current response would be if the outbreak were in a marquee club like the Dodgers or Yankees, instead of the out-of-contention Marlins). As an MLB official told the New York Daily News' Bradford William Davis a month ago: "There is no fixed threshold of positive tests for determining when conducting an MLB season is not safe for players and staff." Great.
The MLB is a cautionary tale of how wishful thinking and ignoring the experts is doomed to blow up in your face. It's hard not to see it as a microcosm of America at large: Much of the nation, in part eager to return to normal life and in part worried about the financial downside of continued lockdown, rushed headlong into the disastrous reopening that epidemiologists had warned about. Meanwhile, countries that took COVID-19 as a serious threat in the beginning have not only resumed sports, but are now welcoming fans back into stadiums. Domestically, our leaders' greed, boredom, incompetence, and political posturing means thousands of Americans will die; similar qualities in baseball's powers-that-be have doomed the season to fail before it got off the ground.
But there's an even more concerning takeaway: that the values of professional sports simply aren't compatible with making smart decisions about public health. The Marlins decision to play on Sunday regardless of the club's positive tests was based largely on a group text among players, led by the "unofficial team captain" Miguel Rojas. "We made the decision that we're going to continue to do this and we're going to continue to be responsible and just play the game as hard as we can," Rojas told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We knew that this would happen at some point. We came to the ballpark and we were ready to play." As Phillip Maciak, a professor of English and American culture at Washington University in St. Louis, quipped dryly in response: "It's well-known that playing the game the right way, giving 110 percent, and being a good clubhouse guy are all effective measures for containing the spread of the virus."
In addition to the apparent conflation of "do your best!" with "subjecting fellow players and by extension their families and loved ones to a highly-contagious and potentially deadly disease," there is also the fact that American sports are too financially enormous, and as a consequence too distant in their decision making, to actually have the protection of the players be at the forefront of their concerns. Already attention turns to the NFL, which opens its training camps Tuesday but has only a shaky plan for the 2020 season. Professional football already turns a blind-eye to the devastating toll concussions take on players' health; why would anyone trust it to make the right call now?
It's pretty incredible that baseball — basically a non-contact sport — could implode this quickly. But not surprising, given everything we know about how contagious the virus is. Barring a substantial change, it seems doubtful that the league actually plays its planned 60 games at this point, much less a postseason in October, when conditions in America are only expected to get worse.
Watching baseball this weekend was healing; I hadn't realized how much I missed it, how much I needed life to feel, in some small way, normal again. But of course, nothing is normal, and pretending otherwise is what put us in this whole mess to begin with. It will only hurt worse, now, to lose it all over again, because while the outbreaks were always inevitable, MLB acted otherwise.