Decades before the nation’s pastime was invented, Robert Burns captured the essence of the sport from far way in Scotland with his observation about how the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Baseball has proven this adage over and over again. Take Bill Buckner’s fielding in the 1986 World Series. Or maybe the idiot who thought 10-cent beer night in Cleveland in 1974 was a wonderful idea. Just when Major League Baseball looks predictable and stodgy (a sport that fosters endless debate over the exact dimensions of the strike zone is surely leaning in that direction), somebody throws a curve.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, the Baltimore Orioles were set to play the Florida Marlins in Miami in only their fourth and fifth games scheduled for the pandemic-shortened season. The games were “postponed” by the coronavirus. Not because anyone involved was unaware the virus existed but because Marlins games are threatening to become their own super-spreader events. At least 17 players and club staff reportedly tested positive. The outbreak left the Marlins stranded in Philadelphia with MLB deciding the team should sit out for at least a week and the Phillies until Friday.
Make no mistake, we have been rooting for MLB action for months, the return of the franchises a much-needed relief for stuck-at-home sports fans already weary of watching “encore” performances from seasons past. But we could not have predicted that three games into a 60-game season, the enterprise would look to be on the verge of coming apart. As Dr. Anthony Fauci observed, the season is already in danger. We don’t much enjoy the possibility of anyone, no matter how well paid or vital, risking his life for the amusement of television viewers. And it’s certainly not acceptable when it extends to front office staff down to secretaries and trainers.
Did Commissioner Rob Manfred and his minions think this through? Actually, they appear to have made quite an effort. Baseball imposed elaborate precautions after weeks of negotiations with the players’ union. Lots of testing. No high-fives, spitting, licking of fingers or chest-bumping. Personal protective gear worn off the field. There are even protocols about how to get to the games. The problem more likely stems from each team’s base of operations. The Marlins happen to exist in Florida where there’s been a stunning 79% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since July 4.
Perhaps Manfred can keep canceling games until the situation has stabilized and that will prove adequate. We do not relish the prospect of calling off the season entirely but turning baseball into a public health fiasco would be worse — a symbol of this nation’s botched COVID-19 response broadcast large. Baseball should be prepared to do that if a lot more players are sidelined. How long before star players drop out? Or teams have to field minor leaguers? Or what happens when there’s a fatality? We mourn a life lost to television ratings? It’s one thing to risk lives for the greater good, it’s another to do so for the nation’s entertainment. The season was already asterisk-loaded.
Other professional sports need to take note. How long before the National Basketball Association, which was set to resume play Thursday with all games in Orlando, Fla., and playoffs in mid-August, has its bubble penetrated by the virus? The National Football League season looks particularly vulnerable. But we love people like the late Dr. Joseph Costa, the Mercy Medical Center critical care chief who died of COVID-19, more. Baseball is great but COVID-19 is not easily contained, its spread often unpredictable. Putting sports above public safety would be unacceptable.
— Baltimore Sun