The Pandemic Lessons From MLB’s Surprisingly Successful Season

Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers takes the field in Game Six of the NLCS in Arlington, Texas. Photo: Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Tuesday night, the World Series begins. And in true 2020 fashion, the matchup between teams from California and Florida will take place in …Texas, with 11,000 fans wearing masks and trying to compete with pumped-in crowd noise. The whole thing is dystopian, for sure — watching a baseball manager yanking his mask up and down while he screams obscenities at an umpire (obscenities we can now all hear at home) is a pandemic-baseball vision that won’t soon leave my mind — but it is, in fact, baseball. Major League Baseball’s 2020 season is four-to-seven games away from being completed, and that is a remarkable achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked.

After all, it was just two months ago that baseball was widely assumed to be making a tragic, boneheaded mistake by even trying to put together a season. The New York Daily News wrote, “The only thing more insulting than the notion of a 2020 season is the constant reassertion of its viability.” The head of the NYC School of Medicine’s Medical Ethics division told Yahoo Sports that baseball’s plan to salvage the season was “stupid” and not “ethical.” These naysayers looked wise when two teams, the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals, suffered outbreaks within the first week of the season. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred even floated the idea of canceling the season right then and there. The league’s primary mistake seemed obvious: Baseball, unlike the NBA, MLS, WNBA and NWSL, was playing its games not in a bubble, but in stadiums across a country in which the coronavirus had very much not been contained. This approach was thought to be putting players’ health at risk for a season that was unlikely to make it through a fortnight in the first place.

And yet here we are, at the threshold of the World Series, with two terrific teams in the Dodgers and Rays both coming off riveting league championships, meeting to finish off a season that MLB, somehow, after its nightmare spring, ended up pulling off. It was bumpy — teams and players lost millions of dollars, and ratings haven’t been near what everyone had been hoping (and planning) for, but MLB did it. The league’s success has been a model for the NFL, which is experiencing a lot of the same issues that baseball did early on but is similarly powering through. And it’s a sign that sports can continue during the worst public-health crisis in 100 years and our country’s persistent bungling of it.

That doesn’t change the overarching question, though: Should Major League Baseball have done this? Should any sport? As MLB’s season ends, let’s take a look at four things its experiment has taught us can work — and four things that might be impossible for any sports league to fully overcome in a pandemic.

What worked

1. You really can test like crazy (and no one will even be mad at you about it).
One of the primary early concerns for MLB and other leagues was not just whether there would be enough rapid COVID-19 tests to proceed with a season, but also whether — even if the capacity was there — whether it would look bad if athletes enjoyed access to tests that the rest of the populace didn’t. You may remember that on March 11, the night Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive, 58 Jazz players were also screened for COVID at a time when only 7,000 tests had been conducted in the entire country. Leagues were concerned that it would look like they were taking away resources from first responders, or even just average citizens.

They needn’t have worried. The volume of testing available to the general public has fluctuated throughout this pandemic, but leagues have been able to screen their players regularly. And few have really blamed them for any shortage, at least not enough to bring about any significant blowback. And because the leagues adopted testing-heavy protocols, they were able to withstand any major problems. Case in point: the Cardinals’ huge outbreak in August, which happened largely because the team tried to come back too quickly after a first round of positive tests and ended up with a bunch more. Sports leagues then treated any positive like an emergency to be isolated and dealt with immediately. They could do that because they tested their players so obsessively. If only our country had been so diligent.

2. It’s apparently difficult to transmit the virus on the field.
One notable aspect of every sports outbreak, from the Cardinals in baseball to the Tennessee Titans in the NFL to the Florida Gators in college football: The only players anyone transmitted the virus to were teammates. During the first series of the season, the Miami Marlins fielded a team against the Philadelphia Phillies that included multiple COVID-positive players, but no one on the Phillies ended up contracting the virus afterward. College football, which has been by far the most lax among major sports in isolating and testing players, hasn’t seen any team-to-team transmissions either. It is bad when a team has an outbreak. But it is far worse — and arguably insurmountable — if that team is transmitting that outbreak to an opponent. You can contain one team at a time, but you can’t contain them all at once. Thus far, there hasn’t been a single documented instance of a player getting COVID from an on-field event. That has allowed the games to continue.

3. Players really will police themselves.
You can forgive a 45-year-old man who lives in a college town for being skeptical that young athletic men and women in their 20s who consider themselves indestructible will always take this virus seriously. But they really have. The most famous example of athletes’ vigilant attitude was when Cleveland teammates banished two pitchers who went out to dinner with outside friends on a road trip in Chicago, breaking team protocol. But across the board, players have taken it upon themselves to make sure they finished their seasons. Despite the lack of a bubble and absence of specific league-wide punishments in place for players who broke protocol, not a single MLB player has tested positive for COVID in nearly two months. You don’t get that without player buy-in. Now, if those players could persuade the college students in my town.

4. You can be flexible with schedule, rules, and format, and fans won’t care as long as you finish your season.
Major League Baseball changed many, many rules this year just to make it through, from switching to seven-inning doubleheaders to putting a runner on second base to begin extra innings to having teams only play other teams in their geographic area. For a sport as traditional and resistant to change as baseball, that could have been unsettling to the hard-core fans. But fans were happy to roll with it, and they even grew to love some of the changes, many of which are likely to stick past this year. This petri dish of a season allowed plenty of room for experimentation, and as it turns out, fans like it when you experiment. Thus, you can expect more.

What didn’t work (or might not work)

1. You must have consistent messaging and protocol, from the top down.
Ten days ago, Florida coach Dan Mullen, after a tough loss against Texas A&M (a school that had 20,000 fans in the stands), groused that his Gators should be allowed full 90,000-fan capacity (Governor Ron DeSantis has, insanely, given the green light to full stadiums) for their next game against LSU. They ended up with zero instead. The game was canceled after more than a dozen Florida players, and Mullen himself, tested positive for COVID-19 over the next week. The SEC has vague protocols they ask coaches to follow, but getting one of its coaches to do anything he doesn’t want to is like asking a 4-year-old to clean the kitchen. Witness what Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt did after the league told him to wear a mask on the sidelines:

And the SEC has different protocols than the Big Ten, which has different protocols than the Big 12, and so on. The NCAA has proven itself mostly powerless to enforce much of anything in college football anymore, which has led to every team and school playing by their own rules. The result: virus clusters popping up out of nowhere, followed by cancellations and postponements.

2. Outdoor sports haven’t led to mass outbreaks. But indoor sports? We don’t know yet.
The NBA is trying to figure out how to conduct its next regular season at teams’ home arenas, likely trying to follow many of MLB’s and NFL’s protocols. But no one has played an indoor sport yet outside the bubble environment. Will that lead to mass spread? After all, it’s starting to get cold outside. Look for college basketball, which begins its season the day before Thanksgiving (likely weeks before the NBA) to be an earlier indicator. Indoor virus transmission is obviously a different animal than outdoor transmission, and there’s little reason to think this disparity wouldn’t show up in sports. It is also worth noting that we also do not know if there will be fans in the stands, either in professional or collegiate basketball. But if the laissez-faire attitude in football is any indication. don’t be surprised to see some schools try. Speaking of which …

3. Fans in the stands haven’t led to any big problems so far. Can it stay that way?
I wrote last week about how teams and leagues are starting to push forward on putting spectators in seats. This hasn’t led to any mass outbreaks so far, and more people are slowly being allowed in (though no one has taken DeSantis up on his offer yet). But the odds of the virus spreading at an event obviously increase the more people are there, and indoor crowds are a far different proposition than outdoor ones. What happens if the streak ends?

4. Are we sure we should be doing this at all?
There is a school of thought among some public officials and disease specialists that because Americans are starting to fool themselves into thinking things are slowly getting back to normal, they’re more easily susceptible to the kind of shutdown fatigue that has helped lead to a recent surge in cases. As much therapeutic value as sports might have to a psychologically worn-down populace — I know it has had plenty of therapeutic value to a psychologically worn-down me — there is an argument than the “normalcy” of having them back has led to that lowering of the guard. If they can play the World Series, why can’t I go out to eat? Why can’t my kid go back to school? Why can’t I host Thanksgiving? Sports can provide uplift, it has provided an uplift, but it is possible that uplift comes at a cost. Yes, leagues are making it through their seasons without major incident or cancellation. But it doesn’t just end with them, does it? They take place in society, and reflect it. When the president pushed for sports to return, that was his reasoning: to make people feel like things were okay, that the coronavirus was under control when it obviously wasn’t. We don’t know how many people took risks they shouldn’t have, and will take risks they shouldn’t, because sports were back and running. But the answer surely isn’t zero, is it?

That doesn’t mean sports shouldn’t have come back; there were many reasons, not all of them financial, for leagues to return. But it certainly worth asking what future generations will think when they look back at 2020 and wonder, with all the carnage, how in the world sports kept going as schools were shuttered, restaurants and bars were going out of business, and millions of people lost their jobs. Of course, maybe sports have earned the right: After all, professional basketball, football, and baseball have clearly taken the virus more seriously than our federal government and much of our society. If we’d all have taken the steps sports have, maybe we’d all be back too.

Pandemic Lessons From MLB’s Surprisingly Successful Season