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Opening Day 2020: Baseball has avoided a pandemic disaster. Will it last?

Opening day has arrived. I didn’t think we’d get here.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is about to start, and it’s….not the disaster I expected.

Given the catastrophic management of this novel coronavirus pandemic across large parts of the United States, I was skeptical that MLB teams would get through “summer camp” to their late July Opening Day.

To be sure, there have been stumbles. Some number of players (and probably staff, although their cases receive less publicity) tested positive before arriving at camp or upon arrival, and there were some testing snafus in early July. Over the last week, players have played in warm up games and then tested positive after, but no breakouts have come about.

Restarting baseball is far from perfect, but many of my worst fears have not come to pass. Here are the pitfalls I had anticipated.

- I thought testing would be a mess. Recall that the league contracted with their PED testing lab to convert to a COVID-19 lab as a way of ensuring a robust testing process that wouldn’t interfere with capacity elsewhere. Well, that might sound simple – a testing lab is a testing lab, right? But those with knowledge of the field suggested it would be far from simple in terms of equipment, materials and personnel. And the first week of MLB activity gave cause for concern. Some teams complained that testing personnel never showed up; in other cases test results were not available for many days. Playing baseball this year hinges on frequent testing with a quick turnaround time for results – only by identifying and removing players who are infected can this season happen at all – so these early errors seemed problematic. Over the past two weeks, however, the testing process seems to have gone smoothly, or at least teams have not complained publicly about lapses.

- I predicted that many established stars would opt out. So far, only a handful of players have opted out for health reasons. There could be others. Mike Trout has expressed concerns; Nats reliever Sean Doolittle has been vocal about the potential problem areas. If positive cases increase we could see a new wave of players deciding to return home. But at my most pessimistic I had imaged we’d see essentially quad A teams with the occasional big name player, and that is not at all the case.

- I feared that many more players and other personnel would test positive. Initial reports had just 1.2% of all those tested (over 3,000 people), which is a fairly low number. On the Rays, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Austin Meadows and Jose Martinez have all acknowledged positive tests (as of this writing all but Meadows are back with the team). Several other players have not been in camp and we may hear of other COVID-19 cases as they return. Other than Meadows (who lasted in camp one full day), we have not yet heard about players becoming infected after the start of camp. Of course the start of real games and road trip travel will pose new challenges.

- I anticipated that stadium gatherings, even without fans in the stands, would be prohibited in many MLB cities. The Toronto Blue Jays are unable to use their home field – the Canadian government, which has closed its border to Americans, is reluctant to relax their travel restrictions for fear that new COVID cases would be the result. This has been an inconvenience as the Blue Jays have scrambled for a new home park (likely Pittsburgh). But I had feared that many other major league sites would prohibit teams from assembling. States or cities with stay at home orders could easily declare baseball “nonessential” and prohibit games from taking place. So far all other home stadiums are available. Of course, this could change. Governor Gavin Newsom has threatened new stay at home rules in California. There has not been talk of new stay at home orders in Florida, but frankly there should be.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

- I was prepared to see a decent number of players with Joe West attitudes. Umpire Joe West, you may recall, outed himself as a mask-shunning, pandemic-denying fool before the season started. I braced myself to see some number of players shrugging their shoulders and resisting the many, many restrictions they face on the field, in the clubhouse, while traveling, and even at home. The behavior (extent of mask wearing and social distance respecting behavior we can pick up from photos and reports) and public statements we’ve heard, at least from Rays players, however, have suggested that these young men take this seriously and understand that their thoughtless actions could have adverse consequences for themselves and their teammates. Will every player be able to sustain this for the duration? That’s a big ask. But at the very least there seems to be genuine buy-in from players.

- The resumption of baseball, I thought, would project the false impression that things were back to normal. Efforts to dig ourselves out of this hole, especially in Florida, have been stymied by the many people (among them our political leadership) who want to minimize this catastrophe, who want to will away 140,000 and counting deaths, and who act as though ignoring infections and hardship will make them disappear. Hearing “play ball,” I thought, would be interpreted as a signal that the worst was behind us. But honestly watching the ramp up to Opening Day, I don’t feel that we’re getting a “business as usual” vibe at all. The masked players; the empty stadiums; the Zoom interviews… this doesn’t look or feel normal, nor does it look like people trying to pretend everything is normal. Instead, I see players and organizations asking: how can we best do the things that bring us joy (and allow us to get a paycheck) even though normal may be many months away? 2020 baseball, in fact looks like what many of our lives look like, as we work behind plexiglass like Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson, or turn our bedrooms into home offices, or figure out how to handle fifth grade math with a sulky ten year old who misses his friends.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Life is not normal, but we are all trying our best

I know there are good and thoughtful people who think this season should have simply been cancelled. Any time groups assemble, any extra travel, gives the virus an opportunity to take hold. I know there are legitimate ethical questions about how to justify the use of medical resources to support 2020 baseball (or basketball, or hockey) at a time when health systems across the country are stretched.

But professional sports are moving ahead, the industry is bringing back some of its furloughed and unemployed labor (although not all), and under the circumstances I am glad that this huge baseball experiment is — knock on wood — working. This may sound over the top, but I see players and coaches, who are wearing their masks as they go about their business, as models of responsible behavior for regular people who are trying to go safely about their business in these worrying times.

Pandemic baseball feels authentic to this moment. Entertainment plays an important role in a functioning society, and baseball will fill a felt need for many. And despite my general skepticism and anxiety, I realize that I’m getting a little excited about this.

It’s Opening Day! How wonderful!

But I also can’t help but ask: Will it last?