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Baseball is my favorite sport. I know that’s weird since I’m a Black guy under the age of 80, but it is what it is. I’m one of those guys who can pound out “baseball is an allegory for the American experience” takes like a hitter spraying singles to all fields.
Last week, on July 24, baseball reopened amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That’s what I love about the game. Even in the midst of a national crisis, leave it to baseball to be a perfect microcosm of just how stupid and greedy this country has become.
As of this writing, 14 Miami Marlins—12 players and two coaches—have tested positive for the coronavirus. The news forced Miami to cancel its home opener against the Baltimore Orioles. The Marlins started the season on the road, in Philadelphia against the Phillies. The Phillies postponed their Monday night game against the New York Yankees after the Marlins news.
Major League Baseball decided to open the season without fans in the stands. But it did little to protect the players. Players were allowed to wear masks on the field, but not required to, and most didn’t. The dugouts were extended into the stands, but there were still lots of people packed fairly close together in the dugouts, with haphazard mask use. And a walk-off grand slam still produced an awkward, maskless pig pile at home plate in Oakland during the As’ first game of the season. Baseball is the most socially distant of the major American team sports, but players can’t stay six feet apart for the whole game.
And that’s just on the field. Off the field, MLB took few of the precautions implemented by other sports leagues. The NBA, for instance, which is planning on restarting next week, has opted to protect its players by creating a “bubble” around them. All games will take place at a massive training facility in Orlando, Fla. Players, coaches, and staff are tested before being allowed into the bubble, and they can leave only with a special dispensation.
But even the NBA’s bubble has holes. Over the weekend, a player for the Los Angeles Clippers, Lou Williams, was granted leave from the bubble to attend a funeral. But rapper Jack Harlow posted a picture of Williams at an Atlanta strip club, because, well, I guess everybody processes grief differently. Williams is now quarantined for 10 days, but the point is that without Harlow accidentally outing his boy, officials might have never known that Williams violated protocol to go to a flesh joint.
At least the NBA is trying. Baseball has no bubble. The games take place at the home stadiums of the various teams, which means teams have to travel around the country to play. The Toronto Blue Jays have no “home” games this year, because the Canadian government decided that the entire plan was unnecessarily risky and barred baseball from returning to Canada. Canada is allowing hockey to resume. Teams will be operating within two “bubbles” to play all of their games: one in Edmonton and one in Toronto. So it’s not like Canada or Toronto are objecting to live sports; they’re objecting to the specific plan MLB has put in place to play them.
Instead of following the models of the NBA or NHL, MLB seems to be trying to replicate the model of the English Premier League. Soccer teams in the EPL did travel to the home stadiums of their opponents. But the EPL took extensive measures to lock down the teams while traveling. All players and staff were tested twice a week. Perhaps most important, the EPL had teams travel on the day of the game, and travel home that night. This avoided hotel stays and extended downtime during which players could get themselves into trouble.
You can’t do that with baseball. Teams play almost every day, not a couple of days a week as in the other sports leagues. And teams play multiple-game series against the same opponent. A baseball team living in a city for three days at a time before moving on to the next one is not living in a bubble.
Instead, baseball teams are living in “America,” and that’s the final problem with MLB reopening—and, really, all of our professional sports reopening: You just can’t keep America away from the players. Our country leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. Our country refuses to mandate mask wearing. The kind of testing (and quick results) that is apparently available only to professional athletes here is available to everybody in countries in Europe and Asia, where sports leagues have successfully reopened.
Reopening American sports might be possible if we lived in a country that was guided by science and culturally united in its fight against the virus. But we don’t live in that kind of country. Instead, we live in a place guided by magical thinking, led by a divisive government that has turned public health into a culture war. We live in a country that puts its infectious disease expert on the pitcher’s mound to throw out the first pitch, while putting one of its greatest pitchers in the White House for a coronavirus photo-op.
In England, the Premier League just concluded its shortened season. Officials say the league tested 1,574 players and staff between July 20 and July 26 and zero—“nil”—tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. In the United States, we couldn’t get through a weekend without over a dozen people testing positive on one team.
It’s not too dangerous to play sports; it’s too dangerous to play sports here.
Baseball is just a mirror for the rest of our country. Other countries can start opening their in-person consumer economies; we can’t. Other countries can start sending their children back to school without putting their teachers at unacceptable risk; we can’t. We can’t have nice things, like baseball and school, because we have not done the work to earn them by making those things safe to do.
Our country is no longer a victim of the coronavirus pandemic but an eager accomplice to it. We know what needs to be done to stop the spread of the virus—timely testing, contact tracing, mandatory masks, and, if necessary, sheltering in place. We simply choose not to do these things, because “America, F Yeah!”
People are getting sick because our government—our whole society, really—has chosen to play ball instead of being safe at home.