Every sport even thinking about trying to come back during the pandemic has had to negotiate all kinds of logistical quandaries around testing, procedure, and protocol. But two overarching questions supersede all the other ones. They’re the only ones that really matter:
A: Can (or even should) you try to play?
B: If so, where do you play?
There is a long list of leagues and organizations that have simply and reasonably answered “no” to question one. If a sport does proceed, the second question takes on enormous significance, because the question of where teams play carries major repercussions. Leagues aren’t just trying to keep athletes safe; they’re trying to make sure that playing doesn’t make the rest of us less safe.
Two different strategies have emerged in answering the location question, and they’ve generally depended on how much of a season a league actually plans on completing. The NHL and the NBA, for example, were nearly done with their runs when play froze in March; all active teams and players are in Edmonton and Toronto, and Orlando, respectively, to finish their schedules and postseason. (This is similar to the MLS and NWSL, in Utah and Orlando, respectively, which are just having one-off tournaments.)
But leagues that hadn’t begun their seasons in March, like the NFL and Major League Baseball, are put in the difficult situation of having to start things up from scratch, and they’ve necessarily had to take a different approach from their brethren. Asking players and staff in these leagues (which feature much larger rosters than basketball and hockey teams) to essentially quarantine for many months on end is untenable. And because their sports physically require too much actual land and area to put any sort of bubble system in place, they’ve made the decision to play in their regular stadiums — just without any fans, at least for now. (The WNBA, which begins play this Saturday, is the exception, playing its entire season in Bradenton, Florida, though the league has the shortest schedule in major North American sports.) Major League Baseball, which is planning to begin its season Thursday night, isn’t cordoned off from anyone. It’s coming directly to you.
But this way of doing things, which may have made sense last month, has run into the same problem that that anyone trying to get their kids back to school (and out of their daddy’s office when he’s trying to write his New York column) knows all too vividly: The virus is spreading out of control in this country. Suddenly, flying your teams in and out of various cities around these United States isn’t just a massive risk; unless you specifically get a waiver from whoever runs the state you’re about to play in, it might actually be against the law. (This is why teams from Georgia can play in New York without having to quarantine for two weeks, but I, a Georgia resident, am not supposed to visit friends in New York City; Governor Cuomo gave MLB special permission.) No team is more aware of this hurdle than the Blue Jays, the only baseball team outside the United States, which learned Saturday that the Canadian government was denying their request to play games at Rogers Center in Toronto. That leaves one of the 30 MLB teams, on the eve of Opening Day, with nowhere to play. The Blue Jays’ options are Buffalo (where the locker rooms are too small for social-distancing protocols to be observed), Dunedin, Florida (where COVID spikes have hospitals at maximum capacity), or … well, right now those are their only options. And their first home game is in eight days.
So … Play Ball!
This is probably an unfairly stark way to look at baseball’s return. A lot could have gone wrong in the run-up to the start of the season, but many of the most-feared scenarios haven’t panned out. Initial testing snafus and delays coming out of the July 4 weekend led to several teams canceling their workouts and various players saying they didn’t feel safe. But those issues have mostly been resolved, even if certain teams had to pay for their own private tests. The league announced at the end of last week that out of 10,548 tests from its most recent round, only six people tested positive — 0.05 percent — and that a five-day stretch saw zero positives.
There have not been outbreaks in clubhouses, and exhibition games over the weekend, when players came into contact with people outside their own organization for the first time, have not led to any short-term or long-term issues — so far, anyway. Nearly all players who tested positive when “Summer Camp” (the league’s disorientingly cheerful name for this current warm-up period) began have recovered and are back on the field, including beloved Atlanta Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman, who was so sick with a 104.5 fever that he said he was “praying for my life.” The league has also —again, so far — avoided any high-profile opt-outs, which was a legitimate fear for a while; Mike Trout, the best player in the world, had said he was “unsure” if he’d keep playing — his wife is due to give birth to their first child in August — but now appears to be onboard. All told, after its disastrous labor-management run-up to the start of the year, MLB probably couldn’t have asked for a better last few weeks.
But now comes the hard part: playing the games. It’s one thing to get players on the same page about living in what amounts to an unofficial bubble — to make sure that they stay away from postgame activities and only go back and forth between the ballpark and the hotel for two weeks before the season starts. But carrying out this operation for two months is an entirely different kettle of fish. Baseball is the easiest of all the major sports in which to observe social-distancing guidelines, but it’s not difficult to see how one positive test could become five and then 20, derailing an entire team’s ability to play. If there’s a testing delay during the season like there was on July 4, it would lead to cancellation of games rather than workouts. And like everything else, MLB is helpless in the face of the situation on the ground. Governors have, unlike the Canadian government, given teams and leagues waivers to the 14-day quarantine requirements in their states, but those can be rescinded if the situation gets even worse.And just wait until the first picture of a baseball player (or any team employee) from an opposing team out at a bar in a visitor city, not wearing a mask, hits Twitter. MLB has tried to take all the right steps. But there are many, many people involved in a baseball organization, and you can’t account for all of them, all the time.
MLB is attempting to be as flexible as possible about this, having a second, “taxi” squad separate from the traveling team with players available to fill in at a second’s notice if they lose a few players at once. (It’s flexible with geography too: One of the possibilities for the Blue Jays is that they just play at whatever MLB stadium happens to be available to them on a given day.) And at a certain point, momentum will kick in. Once the season has begun, it becomes more difficult to shut down than it would have before. If MLB makes it to first pitch on Thursday night — in Washington, D.C., a city where the league needed a special waiver as well — it’ll take an extraordinary event to get them to stop the season. And remember: Baseball only needs to make it through two months of the regular season; once the playoffs start, two-thirds of the teams will be eliminated. By late October, you’d only have two teams and two stadiums. You will have essentially made it.
One league that will be watching MLB’s attempted trick shot incredibly closely is the NFL, which is also playing at home stadiums and even toying with allowing fans in the stands, like NASCAR has the last two weekends. With training camp just a week away, the NFL and its players union are fighting in a way that’s not dissimilar to the MLB-union fracas, largely about safety issues at camp. If baseball’s plan blows up, it makes it that much more difficult for football to proceed. But if MLB makes it through the year, the NFL will surely have no issue barreling through their schedule as well, much to the relief of television executives everywhere.
There are arguments, fair arguments, about whether or not baseball should even try to come back at all in the midst of this pandemic. I’ve struggled with the question myself. But it is coming back, this Thursday night, with the Yankees and the defending champion Nationals, and then with a full slate of games on Friday and throughout the next two months. The exhibition games with no fans have turned out to be decidedly more fun than many had worried, and the cutouts of spectators (and dogs) at Citi Field on Saturday night were undeniably charming.
There are going to be more snags, and one can only hope and pray that any future COVID positives lead to more quick recoveries. (This is far from assured.) But if baseball can pull this off, it doesn’t just give hope to the NFL; it will usher in a dizzying period of American sports over the next month-plus. The WNBA begins its season this weekend; the NHL and NBA will both begin next week. We will have gone from no sports in the United States to a flood of them — at the exact moment the pandemic is raging like never before. How’s it going to work out? No one has any idea. It may be glorious. It may be a disaster. But it will be, as always, uniquely American: all in, plunging forward, hoping for the best, trying to sneak in what you can, while you can. And it will be absolutely riveting to watch.