MLB's First and Last Game of 2020 Captured ... Everything

On both ends of MLB's 2020 season, a positive COVID-19 test rocked the sport. Oh, and let's not forget about that lightning in July.
Publish date:

One of the most striking images of this baseball season came on its very first night.

On Opening Day—meant to be a pitchers’ duel between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, framed as a triumph of the collective spirit of baseball, and marred shortly before first pitch by the news that Nationals outfielder Juan Soto had just tested positive for COVID-19—Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared on ESPN for an early in-game interview. As he spoke about all that baseball had accomplished to make this season possible, with the players on the field below, lightning flashed ominously behind him. If it was supposed to be some sort of cosmic symbol—a warning about how this inherently fraught season was going to go—it felt a little too on-the-nose.

A few minutes later, the game went into a rain delay, and it never came back. MLB and the Nationals spent much of the next few days grappling with the fallout of a positive test from such a star player and facing questions about how they had handled the information.

That image started the season. This one ended it: Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner celebrating a World Series victory, sprawled on the field with his teammates, sandwiched in between his grinning manager and the Commissioner’s Trophy. It doesn’t have the same dramatic flair as the commissioner wreathed in lightning. But, with context, it can evoke a similarly visceral response: Turner had been pulled from the game in a hurry when the team learned that he had tested positive for COVID-19, was told to isolate himself, and chose instead to return to the field to celebrate with his teammates and their families.

It was jarring. Turner’s positive test had been announced shortly after the final out, with a report that he was following all the relevant guidelines, soon confirmed in a tweet from the third baseman himself. (“Can’t believe I couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys!” he wrote.) And yet only moments later, there was Turner, slipping his mask below his chin, hugging his teammates, kissing his wife. (When the broadcast cut to an interview with manager Dave Roberts, which included the necessary question on Turner, the skipper offered, “I didn’t touch him.”) It led to confusion and frustration that dominated the rest of the night and all of the following day and, given that it has now prompted an official league investigation, will probably continue into the offseason.

In a Wednesday afternoon statement, MLB turned it squarely on Turner: “It is clear that Turner chose to disregard the agreed-upon joint protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others,” the league wrote. “While a desire to celebrate is understandable, Turner’s decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came in contact with at risk. When MLB Security raised the matter of being on the field with Turner, he emphatically refused to comply.”

It’s a sort of candid judgment that is typically rare in league communications: Turner’s decision… was wrong is the sort of language that does not show up in statements about performance-enhancing drugs or rule violations. But it fit the tenor of the conversation. Turner’s decision registered sharply both for people who have missed out on their own moments of celebration for months, trying to be responsible, and for people who see a refusal to do so as a of badge of pride.

Dodgers fans: Get SI’s special-edition Los Angeles Dodgers 2020 World Series Champions commemorative issue here

So went the discourse: This is a metaphor for America; this is America; this is about personal responsibility, or about structural failure, or about the obligations of community. This is bigger than baseball. This only matters because of baseball. You would have done just the same thing or you never would have even considered it. It’s Turner’s fault or MLB’s fault or everyone’s.

The image of Turner on the field, mask off, mingling with teammates and family and league staff, will probably not be the one to summarize this season in the end. There were simply too many others that felt specific to this year. There were all the physical reminders of the situation, the masks and the distance and the hand-sanitizer in the dugout, popping up in the background of every shot that could otherwise be described as “normal.” There were players coming together to kneel in protest of injustice—and players who chose to do so even if it meant going it alone—and the accompanying black ribbons and scoreboard messages. There was everything that came from games played in front of cardboard cutouts in stadiums choked with wildfire haze. And, of course, there was the baseball itself.

But as an image to bookend a season that started with a flash of lightning behind the commissioner, amid questions about a player who had tested positive for the virus, and what baseball owes to us and to itself? You could do worse than this one.