It’s hard to consider all that’s going to go into this — players being asked not only to be tested but not to spit or high-five — and wonder, “Can this 60-game season be pulled off safely?”
“That’s a good question,” Manager Dave Martinez said after he removed a mask that read “Stay in the fight.” “Honestly, I don’t know.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
The challenges, though, are obvious. Medical experts who consulted with MLB advised it to stop playing games in September, yet the playoffs are scheduled to roll through October, as usual. Those medical experts labeled the games — each of which involves somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 people — as “risk events,” a phrase that isn’t naturally followed by a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The Nationals will travel to, among other places, Florida, which on Thursday set a state record with more than 10,000 new cases.
Into that world step 1,800 baseball players, expected to perform at their peak for the entertainment of others, all while potentially putting themselves — and their families, and the staffs of the teams they play for — at risk.
A continent away in California, where the weekly trend is at an all-time high of more than 6,000 daily cases, the sport’s best player has a baby on the way.
“Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable,” Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout told reporters Friday. “Obviously, with the baby coming, there’s a lot of stuff going through my mind right now, my wife’s mind and my family. Just trying to [find] the safest and most cautious way to get through a season.”
That’s an equation Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross and catcher Welington Castillo already considered — before opting out.
“These are tough decisions,” Rizzo said. “Kind of courageous decisions, in my mind.”
The truth of the matter is that when team sports returned, the country was supposed to be heading in the right direction. We were supposed to have learned from three months of altering our behavior. Stay home. Wear a mask. Don’t gather in large groups. All the stuff the medical experts told us from the start.
What we have learned is that, as a nation, we can’t be trusted to act in the public interest. And now, “Play ball!”
At some level, this season is going to be about trust. At least the players and team personnel don’t have to ask all of us to, say, not gather closely together at Mount Rushmore or on the Mall for Fourth of July fireworks. Rather, each one has to avoid such situations himself — and trust that the guy next to him, who’s mostly six feet away, is avoiding such spots, too.
The fundamentals as these camps open don’t have to do with getting a bunt down or hitting the cutoff man. They have to do with personal responsibility.
“You really have to caretake each other and make sure that we’re all doing the right thing,” Rizzo said. “Because if one person steps out of line and does the wrong thing, it could affect a lot of people and the season. We’re going to impress on the players that this is a team thing, that if we want to win, we have to stay together. That means on the road: no going out, stay as safe as you can in those hotels and give us the best chance to keep a safe roster, a healthy roster.”
For one player or one team in a single city — say, Washington, where the seven-day average of new cases is below 40 per day, the lowest since late March — that might be feasible. For the entire major leagues — 30 teams, all those players, plus the personnel needed to get them ready to play — it just seems harder to fathom.
It’s difficult to overstate how a player’s everyday habits are ingrained in his psyche and therefore how many adjustments this will take. I assume Max Scherzer licks his fingers before he picks up a fork or his toothbrush, never mind before he prepares to throw a baseball 99 mph. Now he’s going to be asked not to do that?
“I had to stop myself today from almost spitting in my mask,” Martinez said.
From the picture Martinez and Rizzo painted Friday — still nearly three weeks from what is likely to be Opening Day at Nationals Park against the New York Yankees, albeit with no fans — the teams that convince their players and personnel to stick to the protocols might just have a better chance of winning.
“We’ve all played baseball,” Rizzo said. “We’ve all spit when you play baseball. You spit seeds or tobacco or whatever. Pitchers kind of, out of habit, lick their fingers before they throw. Those habits are all going to have to change. I think the team that can adhere to that and adapt to that best has an advantage.”
In one day, the changes are already stark. The best thing about baseball reporting is the time in the clubhouse. Small talk leads to understanding how players work. Understanding how players work helps you understand them as people. Understanding them as people leads to richer stories.
All interactions Friday — and all interactions this year — between reporters and players and coaches will be via Zoom. On Friday, we watched a group of Nats take batting practice under the searing July sun. But we did so from the social distance of the press box, where we were socially distanced ourselves. There was no way to ask Adam Eaton whether the simple act of taking batting practice with his pals, of pulling a ball into the right field stands — where it clanked around seats that won’t be filled this year — felt like getting back to normal.
The truth is, we’re not back to normal. Not close. Only weeks ago, I thought the best part about potentially getting team sports back would be to create a diversion from the virus and the deaths it has caused, now more than 126,000 nationally.
The reality, though, is if team sports are going to return, they have to be not a diversion from what we’re dealing with but a reminder of how serious this situation remains. Think about Eaton and Howie Kendrick staying socially distant as they pull off their gear-changing, hot-rod-driving routine following a home run. Follow the example of base coaches Bob Henley and Chip Hale as they wear masks.
There’s no telling whether baseball — or any team sport — can pull this off. What it can do is remind us that the pandemic is not over, the virus is still here and we all have to make adjustments so that we eventually earn the right to high-five and hug one another.
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