Imagine it’s September 17. The Colorado Rockies are making a surprise push for the division lead ahead of a four-game home series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nolan Arenado’s latest COVID-19 test hasn’t returned from the lab due to a hangup with batch testing, and the Rockies’—maybe even the National League’s—best player doesn’t play out of an abundance of caution.
Take it a step further: When Arenado’s test finally does come back, it’s positive. His season might be over, and there’s now a heightened risk of transmission in the clubhouse. During a 60-game season where every contest carries more consequence, urgency, and danger, are we really willing to put players at risk—even if the division races are tight and it feels good to be invested in the sport again?
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When it occurred to me in March that baseball wasn’t returning in time for Opening Day—that it might not return at all this season—I joined the chorus of the grieving.
But baseball is what we need right now, I told my family and friends. We were living under strict stay-at-home orders. There would be some comfort, some semblance of normalcy, if our favorite teams could take the field and offer a distraction to a broken world.
I thought about Sammy Sosa sprinting around Wrigley Field waving an American flag during the Chicago Cubs’ first home game following the September 11 attacks. I thought about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz echoing the anger and grief of Bostonians in the wake of the marathon bombings in 2013 by declaring to the fans in Fenway Park: This is our fucking city!
I also thought about my 82-year-old grandmother, who more than anyone kindled my love for the game. I thought about her sheltering alone in Florida during the early days of the pandemic. Imagine if she could have watched a ballgame every afternoon: Wouldn’t that have been a light in the darkness—something familiar and fun to stave off the creep of loneliness?
I wanted baseball back. My brother and I even built a pitching mound in our backyard, tried to throw 85 mph (I topped out at 78 before my elbow fell apart), and I wrote a sappy essay about the whole thing.
Four months later, I’m not sure I long for baseball’s return anymore, at least not this season. The maddening labor dispute between players and owners at a time when regular people’s lives were being upended certainly chilled much of my enthusiasm. The charm of the game had been overshadowed by the dollars that make it go. But more acutely, it became clear that the league—and this country—is not ready for baseball. In March, I was naive. I figured the worst would be behind us by now—that by July, the pandemic would be a recent memory, and we’d be discussing Rockies southpaw Kyle Freeland’s off-season adjustments instead.
But what we saw in June changed my mind. There was the sobering awakening to persistent racial injustices, which made the urgency to start the baseball season feel trivial. Then, many states tried to reopen their economies, ignoring the threat of the pandemic so we could enjoy “normal” things, like bars and beaches.
In Texas, where the Rockies will open their season against the Rangers on July 24, there were 15,000 new cases of the coronavirus and 154 new deaths reported on July 16—both record highs for the state. California, where the Rockies will play the Oakland Athletics in their second series, has nearly 400,000 cases of COVID-19 right now, more than 200,000 of which are among people between the ages of 18 and 49.
Colorado is doing better, but positive cases are rising again here, too. And by the time the team makes it home on July 31, there’s no telling what our numbers could look like. State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy recently said she fears ICU capacity could be maxed out by mid-September, and that another COVID-19 peak could happen in October.
Yet, without sufficient proof that players and personnel can be protected, baseball is still coming back. MLB is trying to ensure daily testing via a lab in Utah, but there have already been issues with that process and nearly every team has already had a staff member or player test positive.
The Kansas City Royals, for example, saw almost their entire roster of catchers contract COVID-19 in recent weeks. Some of the league’s biggest stars have been sick, too, including Colorado fan favorite Charlie Blackmon, who recently rejoined the Rockies after overcoming COVID-19. Beyond that, it’s not clear—despite what we hear from league and government officials—if playing an abbreviated MLB season will indirectly diminish the supply of test kits for communities that need them most. Even neighboring countries have seen enough: Canadian officials informed the Toronto Blue Jays last week they cannot host MLB games in Canada.
With all this in mind, I’m left wondering: Are we ready for baseball? After 9/11 and after the Boston Marathon bombings, baseball was a salve. The physical trauma exacted by the incidents were over; baseball helped us heal and move forward. But a pandemic is not an isolated incident, and the threat of COVID-19 is not close to being over. If baseball contributes to the national delusion that we’re doing just fine—that it’s time to return to normal—will it achieve more harm than good?
Ian Desmond, the Rockies’ utility player who became one of the first MLB players to opt out of the 2020 season, may have grappled with this best in a poignant post about baseball’s failure to confront racism and other systemic issues: “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this baseball season one that is a risk I’m not comfortable taking…. Home is where I need to be right now. Home for my wife, Chelsey. Home to help. Home to guide. Home to answer my older three boys’ questions about coronavirus and civil rights and life.”
When players burst from their dugouts for the first time this season, I’ll watch. To a degree, it will be uplifting to see the sport return, but it won’t have the same impact of Sosa and Ortiz carrying their communities in moments of tragedy. After all, there will be no fans in the bleachers, nor any spilling from bars in LoDo. The fans will be home on Opening Day, remember? Because we’re still trying to survive a global pandemic.
I confess, I’ll still get too worked up about the game. I’ll play fantasy baseball. And by mid-August, if the season lasts that long, I’ll probably lose sleep again over umpire Joe West’s conception of a strike zone.
But we’d be wise, as we watch the game from a safe distance, to keep our expectations low and our vigilance high. For no matter what happens on the green fields of America’s ballparks in the coming months, we all share in the challenges of Ian Desmond and his family. And somehow, some way, even if it takes extra innings, I hope we can find a way to rally from behind.