But we are in the midst of a global pandemic. That sentence remains in the present tense. Vaccines exist, and they are already helping millions among us. But the coronavirus is still here. Because it is, caution still comes before celebration. That stinks. But that’s true.
So the Nationals and New York Mets were off Thursday when they should have been playing, not because it was cold and blustery in the District — which it was — but because the Nats had one positive test for the coronavirus on their roster Wednesday, and two more Thursday, with the possibility of more to come. Thus, Thursday wasn’t a slow build to Max Scherzer’s first pitch in front of 5,000 lucky souls at Nationals Park. Rather, it was the scramble that playing sports in a pandemic has become: Who tested positive? Whom did he talk to? What were the test results of those people? Ugh, that’s so 2020.
We know a lot more about the virus and its spread than we did at this time last year, when Major League Baseball was postponing its season and there were far more questions than answers. Indeed, we know more about it than we did when that season finally started in July. We know more, still, than we did when it roared through the clubhouses of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins in the midst of that odd, scary, shortened campaign.
All of that made Thursday’s dawn seem bright and cheerful. Walk through neighborhoods in the District on Thursday morning and Nats flags flew from the houses. Nats hats topped the heads of the dog walkers. “Are you going tonight?” people asked. And they smiled. Zero Nats fans have seen their team play in person at the home park since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. That was 17 months ago. (Is it possible it was only 17 months ago?)
Scherzer, speaking by Zoom on Wednesday, couldn’t contain a grin when he considered the prospect of a crowd that, during normal times, would be embarrassing. In these times? 5,000 > 0.
“It’s the atmosphere,” the Nats ace said. “There’s an adrenaline rush. When there’s no fans out there, you’ve got to completely generate it yourself. But when you have a stadium packed full of fans, just their atmosphere gives you that adrenaline jolt and you don’t have to do anything. The fans bring it for you.”
Someday, Max. Someday.
Remember how last season ended? Yes, with the Los Angeles Dodgers winning their first World Series in 32 years. But it also ended with star third baseman Justin Turner being removed from the final innings of Game 6 because he had tested positive for the virus. The truncated season could be completed with the crowning of a deserved champion despite the pandemic, but every single element of it would be defined by the pandemic. There was and is no escaping it.
So here we are, back where we started. When Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo announced his club’s positive test Wednesday, it caught the reporters assembled on a Zoom call off guard. The Nats had survived spring training in covid-rich West Palm Beach, Fla., without a positive test. Players understand the gravity of a single case in a clubhouse. They understand that staying safe and healthy is a competitive advantage. And once they got through the testing protocols to begin their day, spring training felt relatively normal.
That meant the season that was about to begin felt somewhat normal, didn’t it?
“I would have had a different answer about 1:10 this morning,” Rizzo said, referencing the time he received the Nats’ most recent test results.
The trick going forward is what it has been since sports returned: Be cautious. Be steadfast. Be flexible. And continue to take the pandemic seriously.
“This is a serious business,” Rizzo said via Zoom on Thursday evening. “It’s about people’s health. These players, obviously they’re very important to me and to our organization, but they’re people. We’ve lost over half a million people because of this virus. And this is nothing to joke about. This is nothing to point fingers over.”
A worthy reminder. With any luck, MLB’s schedule makers won’t have to revive their 2020 role as Gumby, packing the schedule with seven-inning doubleheaders and watching off days evaporate. That strained players. It strained staff. It strained psyches. But if that’s the path forward, at least it’s no longer uncharted.
One other thing we can say now that we couldn’t at this point last year: Through all the logistical challenges it took to pull off championship seasons in all the major American sports — from MLB to the NBA, the NFL to Major League Soccer, the WNBA to the NHL and more — there have been hundreds of positive tests but zero professional athlete deaths. That doesn’t mean the virus doesn’t kill, and for anyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse who is medically compromised, concerns would be elevated. But the data allows us to absorb the news, process the postponement and inhale and exhale at a more measured rate.
Which all makes Thursday’s postponement — and the news that, out of an “abundance of caution,” the teams won’t play Friday, either — seem like a headache rather than a calamity. Fingers crossed on that.
Across the majors, the season did open. Miguel Cabrera homered in the snow in Detroit. Gerrit Cole took the mound at Yankee Stadium. There were highlights, normal baseball highlights, from around the country.
And then there was Washington, where the wind blew the cherry blossoms from their trees right as we reached the peak of the season and where the coronavirus wiped out Nats-Mets and the normalcy it represented.
“I’m basically done with this,” Scherzer said, speaking for a nation. “I’m ready to get back to normal. I’m ready for me, personally, to do everything that we want to do on and off the field and live our lives as normal as best we can.”
We’re not there yet, Max. We’re close but not yet. Register for your vaccine and get it as soon as you’re eligible. No one wanted or needed baseball to remind us that the virus is still here and the virus can still spread, but that’s what Opening Day brought anyway.
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