WASHINGTON, D.C. — The most famous man at Nationals Park on Opening Day stopped to take a photo with a fan on his way in. Then, like everyone else entering the stadium, he got his temperature taken.
“97.3!” chirped the staffer holding the infrared thermometer.
And then 79-year-old Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, strode into the ballpark.
That morning, the Nationals had learned that their youngest and brightest star, 21-year-old left fielder Juan Soto, had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A month earlier, the man who means more to Washington baseball than any other, 35-year-old first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, announced he would opt out of the season because he was concerned about his family’s health. So on Thursday the world champs had to celebrate their first title without their fans and without two of the men who got them there.
This is pandemic baseball. This is the bargain we struck when we as a society decided we wanted to watch sports no matter the cost. The man responsible for leading the nation’s charge against the coronavirus threw a ceremonial first pitch to a man who could have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Even God doesn’t want this. With two on and one out in the top of the sixth inning, the skies opened and lightning sliced through the sky. The jumbotron forlornly entreated nonexistent fans to “exit the seating bowl.” The players had to be ushered inside. After nearly two hours, they called the game. The Yankees won 4–1. What’s next, locusts?
The weather exposed yet another hole in MLB’s plan to complete the season safely. The league says its priority is limiting players’ time at the ballpark and keeping them outdoors when they are onsite. On Thursday, for some reason, they were forced to endure that rain delay, which most of them passed in damp clubhouses. But what can you expect from decision-makers who spent the spring insisting that they needed to finish the season before the virus returns with greater strength in the fall and then on Opening Day announced that they had expanded the playoffs?
Even when it proceeded as planned, the evening unfolded bizarrely. Players and staff stood, masked and socially distant, for the pregame introductions, which echoed off the empty seats. The defending champions raised a banner as fake crowd noise played.
When Washington ace Max Scherzer allowed a two-run home run to Yankees DH Giancarlo Stanton on his 16th pitch of the game, the park was quiet enough that the pitcher’s bark of “Goddammit!” made it onto the television broadcast. And when that ball landed, in the left-centerfield stands, no one was there to snatch it. It clanged down the rows for a few seconds before settling on the concrete. Eventually a masked staffer retrieved it.
Then, when Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton hit a solo shot off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the bottom of the inning, he and his teammates tried to celebrate without touching.
The Nationals played the Presidents Race, which had been pre-taped, on the jumbotron. Teddy Roosevelt won. No one in uniform appeared to be watching.
Eventually, after an hour and 58 minutes, they ended the game. It had lasted an hour and 43 minutes.
And it all played out before the backdrop of nearly 150,000 Americans dead of COVID-19. Those who survive often tell harrowing tales, such as that of Braves star first baseman Freddie Freeman, who watched his fever climb to 104.5° and prayed, “Please don’t take me.”
Soto is one of the lucky ones: He seems to be asymptomatic. He later tested negative in follow-up rapid tests, but if the positive result is the correct one, he participated in as many as two workouts and two exhibition games, against the Orioles, while carrying the disease. (He last supplied COVID-negative saliva on Sunday.) Regardless, he will have to produce two consecutive negative samples, at least 24 hours apart, before he can be allowed to return to the field.
If the Nationals were required to follow the same regulations as the rest of the citizens of the District of Columbia, everyone in the organization who interacted with Soto would be under quarantine for 14 days. But they are not required to follow those regulations, because we are desperate for sports, and we are apparently willing to endure almost anything to have them.
You are allowed to want some respite from the recurring nightmare in which we live these days. You are allowed to want to enjoy something, anything. You are allowed to want your sports back. But you have now seen the first night of pandemic baseball. Is this what you want?