Alan Zendell, July 27, 2020
We all knew this would happen. Even virus deniers and conspiracy theorists, deep down at some level had to know. You can describe America’s determination to push forward with professional sports seasons as heroic, courageous, innovative, even altruistic if you imagine team owners and players are putting themselves at risk to serve some higher purpose – the morale of millions who’ve been trapped indoors with little to distract them. Or, you can view it as Donald Trump does – about money and re-opening American businesses at any cost.
As a nation, we’re like spoiled children. We want what we want and we throw tantrums if we don’t get it. Describing the experiment of going ahead with baseball in spite of COVID-19, Thomas Boswell wrote: “In this, we see Americans’ national tendency toward willful ignorance being played out on a small, crystal-clear stage…”. Is that American exceptionalism or a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance?
The major league baseball season is four days old, and several teams have multiple players who tested positive and will therefore have to work through the league protocol of remaining isolated on a special “injured list” until they have two lab-sanctioned negative tests separated by at least twenty-four hours. The worst case so far is the Miami Marlins, who spent their three-week training camp in Miami. Coincidence? Bad luck? Since the Marlins virtually lived in the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia all week, both they and the Phillies canceled their next game – the Phillies, so they could sterilize their clubhouse, and the Marlins, because they have no idea how many more players will turn out to be infected when test results are known.
We don’t know how many games the Marlins will have to cancel – at the moment, it’s two and counting. The elephant in the room that no one is mentioning is that with a sixty game schedule, Miami might wind up canceling its entire season. Boswell thinks Major League Baseball should stop before teams are overwhelmed by community transmission. He likewise thinks both the National Football League and the NCAA should cancel their seasons.
We should give baseball the benefit of the doubt. Nice try, and all that. MLB even won praise from Anthony Fauci, who threw the first ceremonial pitch in Washington, for their carefully thought out protocols. But the Canadian government didn’t buy it. Canada, which has combated the pandemic far more successfully than the United States, had closed its border with the U. S. on March 21st. It wasn’t a big surprise when the Canadian government ruled that games could not be played in Toronto. Toronto settled on Buffalo as its home field this year. Most Americans just shrugged and moved on.
Of course, this isn’t really about baseball or football. Sports is a metaphor for American business. No one wants to see our economy descend into another Great Depression, but the question must be asked: if Donald Trump weren’t in a desperate fight for re-election that depended on rocket-like recovery in the financial markets, might cooler heads have prevailed?
Trump wanted America to believe it had a simple binary choice between the economy and the health of countless citizens. That was a false choice from get-go. The majority of economists argued that if ignoring the virus to open businesses accelerated the spread, as almost every public health official predicted, the overall harm to the economy would be devastating.
The baseball experiment was necessary to awaken the country to the reality that it still hasn’t accepted the truth about COVID-19. Professional baseball players are healthy, fit, and young (27 on average.) If athletes like them, following strict rules of social distancing and avoiding all risky situations can’t make it work, how can the rest of us?
Will they succeed? We don’t know yet. Baseball has taken every reasonable precaution, although we already see big holes in its recovery plan in the event the virus continues to spread. They’re dealing with the same reality as the rest of us. Reliable COVID tests return results after multiple days, while quick turnaround tests have unacceptably high false results. Consider the case of the Nationals’ Juan Soto.
His positive test finding last Thursday was the result of a test administered two days earlier. He was immediately given three quick turnaround tests, all of which were negative, but not reliable enough to meet the league standard. Now, four days later, we still don’t know the result of the sanctioned follow-up tests.
What a mess! I don’t envy Nationals’ management or the league. But one thing seems certain. Regardless of pressure from Trump and his base, if baseball can’t make this work, American business will have no choice but to remain in partial shutdown.