MLB Needs to Cancel Spring Training

MLB has exposed some 100,000 people to a global pandemic while holding games that don't even count.
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In the last 48 hours, as the coronavirus has raced across the United States, the NBA has suspended its season, more than three dozen colleges and universities have kicked students off campus, President Trump has barred travelers from Europe from entering the country … and MLB, its season still two weeks away, has exposed some 100,000 people to a global pandemic.

It’s time to cancel spring training, or at the very least, close it off to fans.

You can argue, as President Roosevelt did during World War II, that an anxious nation is heartened by the continued normalcy of its games. But these games don’t even count. No one is heartened by the continued normalcy of watching a series of Double A relievers try to master their curveball.

Spring training attendees fall into two major categories: snowbirds who decamp to Florida and Arizona in the winter, and fans who have flown to watch their favorite teams in action. So, old people and people who have to get on planes to go home—two of the populations most vulnerable to infection by COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

At least 1,255 people in the United States have tested positive and at least 37 have died, according to a New York Times database. On Tuesday afternoon, Brian Monahan, the doctor responsible for Congress and the Supreme Court, reportedly told Senate staff he expected 70 million to 150 million Americans to become infected. At the 1% mortality rate cited by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that could be 1.5 million dead.

Commissioner Rob Manfred took steps this week to protect the players by barring media and other nonessential personnel from clubhouses and instituting six-foot gaps for press conferences. (Whether that will work is up for debate. The NBA instituted the same policies, and Jazz center Rudy Gobert, after pointedly touching every microphone at his press conference on Monday, tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday night, forcing his league’s hand.) But so far, Manfred has elected not to protect the fans.

Manfred has already spent the spring fending off a mutiny: His players believe he did not do enough when the Astros were found to have stolen signs illegally during their 2017 championship season. Those stakes felt high a month ago. Now people are dying. Does he really want to be accused of not doing enough here?

This week, Nippon Professional Baseball, in Japan, delayed the start of its season. The Korea Baseball Organization did the same.

MLB’s regular season, scheduled to begin on March 26, will be affected. It already has been. Manfred is considering everything from proceeding as usual to playing in empty ballparks to relocating games to areas with fewer COVID-19 cases. In some instances, the first option has been taken away: The Mariners and the A’s have already said that, in accordance with local government regulations barring large crowds, they will explore alternative plans.

The league does not yet need to decide what to do about the regular season. Everything is moving so fast that the prudent response is probably to wait and see how the pandemic progresses. But there is simply no reason to continue endangering people over glorified practice. Play the games in empty ballparks, or move them to the back fields.

While Monahan was warning Senate staff that nearly half of Americans will likely contract COVID-19, the Reds and the Rockies were playing an exhibition game at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., in front of 7,108 fans. Cincinnati brought one member of its projected starting lineup. Colorado started a pitcher who will probably begin the season in Triple A. They were tied at 5 after the ninth inning. They decided not to bother playing the 10th.

No one won. A lot of people may have lost.