“This is so dumb and so terrible . . . why are we doing this?”
Until I saw that tweet from Amanda Rykoff Thursday afternoon, I was struggling to organize my thoughts and feelings about the pending 2020 baseball season. Amanda did it for me.
Rykoff, an L.A.-based former sportswriter, wasn’t even responding to a baseball thing. She was commenting on the fact that the National Basketball Association intends to use local, state, and federal law enforcement plus former special operations forces to secure its Orlando bubble for the resumption of its season.
Unlike the NBA, National Hockey League, and the National Women’s Soccer League, Major League Baseball is not planning to keep its players contained in a bubble, but that is no consolation for any fan or peripheral worker who is clear-eyed about the resurgence of the novel coronavirus in the United States.
Just take a moment and look at this graph of the seven-day average of new cases from The New York Times:
That steep upward slope at the far right started about ten days ago, and one didn’t need to have a degree in immunology to see it coming. Back on June 2, I wrote, “the movement toward reopening that has taken place in recent weeks scares me every bit as much as the initial spread of the virus. This is the part in the horror movie when the oversexed teenagers think they have killed the homicidal maniac and turn their back on him. We all know what happens next.”
What happens next is the killer gets back up and starts killing again. That upward slope is the serial killer in the horror movie we are all living in literally getting back up.
On Wednesday, there were 38,115 new infections in the United States, breaking the single-day record of 34,203 set on April 25. It wasn’t safe to play a Major League Baseball season in late April. Why is anyone pretending it is now, particularly when that trend line is pointing up?
The answer, of course, is money and stupidity. The players want to play because they are workers, this is their job, and they, like all of us, want both a return to normalcy and to draw as much of their salaries as possible. They are also a group of athletic young men who, as a whole, likely have an inflated sense of their own physical superiority. I wonder how many of them noticed last week when a Bay Area epidemiologist discovered that 44 percent of COVID-19 cases in California are in people between the ages of 18 and 34. Last Friday, the Phillies announced that five players and three staff members had tested positive for the disease. Since then, the Phillies announced that two more players had tested positive and seven other teams—the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Mariners, Red Sox, Rockies, and Tigers—have announced that at least one of their players has tested positive.
The owners claimed that playing regular season games without fans in the stands would force them to operate at a loss, but that hasn’t convinced them to do the right thing and cancel the season. Occam’s razor suggests they were lying about their finances. Get my fainting couch. Not that I doubt that empty stadiums would reduced their profit margins. Why else would we now have reports that some teams may actually allow reduced-capacity crowds into their stadiums?
“I can tell you there are clubs around Major League Baseball that are anticipating having fans in their ballparks,” Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy told the Boston Herald on Wednesday. “It’s an incredibly important part of our business, of our baseball operations, so we’d like to get to that point.”
Kennedy made no effort to hide the teams’ motivation there. It’s all about business. He didn’t even try to obscure that with platitudes about the fan experience or the importance of fans to the game. The fans and players represent nothing to the owners other than dollar signs, which is why they aren’t even pretending to have any regard for the health of their fans or employees.
Even if the ballparks remain closed to fans, even with the schedule reduced so that most teams will play all of their games within a single time zone, how can baseball rationalize starting up a travel league of this size given the state of the nation and the virus? Texas, home to two teams, has seen the number of people hospitalized with the virus more than double in June, prompting the state to pause it’s reopening process on Thursday. New York, also home to two teams, is so concerned about the rising rates of infection around the country that is imposing a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving from states with a high infection rates, such as Florida and Georgia, home to three eastern division teams. Meanwhile, non-essential travel between the U.S. and Canada has been suspended through the end of July, and, given current trends, that seems likely to be extended. That could force the Blue Jays to play the abbreviated season in a minor league park in the U.S.
The governments of New York and Canada could exempt Major League Baseball from those travel restrictions, but why should they given the teams’ rate of travel and contact, and why should the Astros and Rangers be exempt from Texas’s pause on reopening? Of the 30 major league teams, 18 play in states that have seen sharp increases in cases over the last two weeks, and 14 of those teams play in states with far more cases today than they had in March or April.
Did I mention that, as of Wednesday, Los Angeles County had the most cases of COVID-19 in the country? Do you think that might have something to do with the premature reopening of bars and restaurants? Do you think adding Major League Baseball to the mix will make things better or worse?
I’ll admit, when MLB announced that it had finally decided to impose a season, and that play would begin at the end of July, I got excited. I love baseball. I miss baseball. The thought of live major-league baseball triggered an involuntarily positive emotional reaction. I read over the myriad new rules with the intent of weighing in on the good and the bad and how different things will really be, but I can’t get past the fact that they should not be at all.
Holding a Major League Baseball season in the midst of a global pandemic that is getting dramatically worse on a daily basis in the United States is a violation of the public trust. It is craven and irresponsible. It not only puts the players at risk. It puts their families at risk. It puts at risk the teams’ many other employees, many of whom are older, less healthy, and lack the legal and financial ability to opt out of the season. It also puts the larger community at risk, which means you and me. We got out of that first rocket-climb of infection in the graph above by severing social contacts. Think of a circuit. Break the contacts, and the power can’t travel. Reestablish contact, and the power flows. Every reopening reestablishes contacts that power the spread of the virus. The more we open up, the more power the virus will have. Major League Baseball is a nuclear power plant that will be added to the circuit in July unless someone somewhere with enough influence to do so wises up and puts a stop to it.
This is so dumb and so terrible. Why are we doing this?
Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.