I’m going to preface this piece by saying that there are very few things I want more than for sports to come back. As it is the middle of July, it is frankly eerie to be living in a world where I can’t sit down on the couch every evening and watch the Nats play, or better yet, take the trip down to Nats Park and enjoy the game from the stands.
And here we are today – July 22nd, 2020 – the random July Thursday we all totally expected Opening Day to fall on. Barring the rain, Max Scherzer will take the mound at 7:00 pm and face a new-look Yankees team, headlined by their new star pitcher, Gerrit Cole. On paper, this is exciting. After all, it is opening day. And the game features the reigning world champions against a World Series favorite in the 60-game dash to the playoffs? Sign me up.
If life these past few years has taught us anything, it is that what looks promising on paper is not always reality. This is going to be a trainwreck.
I was speechless when I saw the news that Nationals outfielder Juan Soto had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Soto, one of the brightest young stars in baseball, has played with some sort of invincibility during his short career – he is not afraid to get under opposing pitchers’ skin, probably has the most fun out of any player in the whole league, and overall, is a damn good baseball player. But while the Soto news came out of nowhere, it is not entirely surprising that he contracted the virus. He had to self-isolate after his roommate, an unnamed Nationals player, tested positive. This story broke two days ago, which is the quickest time a test can come back with our current technological capabilities.
But this news sets up a testing nightmare for the Nationals, and frankly, for all of Major League Baseball. Soto was in the lineup in both exhibition games the Nats played against the Baltimore Orioles. Now, after testing positive, Soto could have potentially exposed the entire Nationals team and coaching staff to the virus, as he refrained from wearing a facial covering in the dugout and made physical contact with other players. Soto also could have transmitted the virus to Baltimore players, whether it be at the plate or on the bases, or through a middleman Nats player. If the game goes on as scheduled tonight, asymptomatic Nationals could give COVID-19 to Yankees players, as could asymptomatic Orioles to their opening opponent, the Boston Red Sox. Don’t forget the clubhouse attendants at Nationals Park, Camden Yards, and Fenway Park, the flight crew transporting the Orioles to Boston, and other essential staff working the games.
A baseball game is much more than the nine men on the field, the batter, and the umpires. Just one game is an intricate wheel that would fall apart without all the cogs in the correct place. It is tough to socially distance sports, and baseball is theoretically one of the easiest to limit contact in. Now we are in a situation where a high-profile player has tested positive. Given the high transmission rate with the coronavirus, it’s highly likely that Soto transmitted the disease to at least one other teammate or opponent. And with a disease that spreads like wildfire, you’ll start to see more cogs being turned loose.
I’m not an engineer, but wheels that aren’t structurally sound don’t tend to fare well.
The fact of the matter is that we just don’t have the necessary resources to successfully pull this off. My family has been watching a lot of German soccer recently to pass the time while American sports are on hold. Yesterday, less than 600 new cases of COVID-19 were found in Germany. Compare that to the United States, where yesterday alone over 71,000 new cases were reported – a number so high, if Wednesday were a country, it would have the 32nd most COVID-19 cases in the entire world. Due to the lower rate of cases, ability to conduct contact tracing, and widespread mask usage, Germans could allocate more testing resources and PPE to frequently test players and staff, allowing for a successful season largely mirroring baseball’s return plan.
We can’t make that promise to major sports – since this country has been uniquely unable to contain the virus, testing is needed all around the country. It’s not feasible to give each team multiple tests per week, because that testing capacity is needed in our communities more than ever.
Regarding testing, it is imperative that teams know who has COVID-19 as quickly as possible, to prevent it from spreading throughout the team. Currently, it takes two days at the minimum to receive a test result. News broke about Soto’s interaction with his teammate two days ago, after all. We won’t know whether or not any other Nationals players or staff tested positive until Saturday, when the Nats are scheduled to face the Yankees once again. If Soto did infect a good amount of Nationals, then they’ll also need to go into quarantine. And even though it’s exciting to see baseball back in 2020, nobody wants to watch the Harrisburg Senators face the daunting Mets, Phillies, or Braves.
Soto’s diagnosis with COVID-19 shows the flaws with the model that baseball is using. MLB was trying to create miniature bubbles around each stadium that the teams would travel to and from, not leaving until the season ended. When the bubble is burst, it becomes a petri dish for those inside of it, and potentially more of a public health crisis inside than out.
Don’t get me wrong – as I said at the beginning, I am genuinely excited to have baseball back. I think it will help our country heal, as baseball is our national pastime. I’m worried that now might not be the best time for the sport to come back. Especially as five teams are located in the biggest hotspots of Florida, Texas, and Arizona, it’s only a matter of time until more cases begin to pop up in baseball bubbles.
So to the 2020 season, one that will go down in history as one of the strangest years in sport – here goes nothing.