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MLB’s 2020 Season: Shut It Down

With players and staff testing positive for Covid-19, and MLB’s health and safety protocols proving unreliable, why is the season pressing ahead?

Fenway Park by Eric Kilby is licensed under CC BY SA-2.0

MLB’s 2020 Season: Shut It Down


Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

As the MLB season churns ahead, we still don’t know the names of all of the baseball players who have Covid-19.

Some have come forward, like Freddie Freeman and Charlie Blackmon. Some organizations are only disclosing that a certain number of players–for example, four with the Marlins, two with the White Sox–have tested positive. Divulging the names constitutes a HIPAA violation, so it’s an understandable decision for teams to make. Similarly, sports journalist institutions, like the Athletic, are also reticent to speculate, until the player or their representative has decided to go public.

This is all very reasonable, particularly given the level of unreasonableness to which we have all become accustomed, in 2020. However, it can lead to the general public making unfortunate attempts to triangulate certain facts.

And by the general public, I mean ‘me.’

Freaking Out in the First Degree

Exhibit A: the Phillies were the first organization to report that several players and staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus, timed spectacularly with the announcement of the MLB season. Additional reporting brought the total number to seven players, and five staff members.

Then came the news that Scott Kingery, Hector Neris, Tommy Hunter, and Ranger Suarez, and then Christian Bethancourt, Adam Haseley, and Aaron Nola had been placed on the IL for undisclosed reasons. And then: none of those players reported to camp. Even people who are not exceptional with numbers, like me, could do the math.

To the charges of ‘Freaking Out in the First Degree,’ I plead: guilty.

Already very uneasy, I launched into full-on Aaron-Nola-related panic mode. Obviously, I care about the health and well-being of any Phillies player–I care about the health and well-being of any player or staff member in MLB, even someone on the Yankees–but right now, Aaron Nola is my favorite player in all of baseball. His curveball is a thing of Apollonian beauty with a 23.1 Pitch Value (2018), he was a hero and a sweetheart to me personally, and I try to work in a mention to him or aforesaid curveball in every single episode of our podcast. Reading the tea-leaves of Joe Girardi‘s statements did little to solace me, when Girardi’s only comment about Nola could be, “He is not here,” coupled with this verbal quadrille:

But the larger question on my mind wasn’t simply whether or not Aaron Nola, beloved Aaron Nola, has Covid-19.

The real question is: why are we pressing on with this season?

The Larger Existential Baseball Angst

And this question remains, even as the Aaron Nola Situation has become clearer. As the excellent Matt Gelb again reports, Nola came in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, and was isolating for a week while he awaited test results–which ultimately came back negative. Gelb also smartly points out that varied organizational response only further confuses the issue (and perhaps leads to more Freaking Out in the First Degree), although it hardly breaks the list for complaints about MLB’s handling of this season.

Because my consolation about Nola, in particular, does not shrug off the existential baseball angst that has been building since the MLB season was announced. As I previously wrote in the immediate aftermath of that report, I was relieved that MLB and the MLBPA finally had a game-plan for the season. But I was also deeply concerned about the health and safety of players and staff.

The evolution of my thinking on this topic does not have to do with it ‘hitting home.’ At that point, I already knew that several Phillies players had tested positive for Covid-19. Naturally, the thought ‘Could Aaron Nola have coronavirus?’ flashed across my mind because I am only human and the jury will refer to Exhibit A, but there are no good outcomes. The news is not better if it’s Scott Kingery, or Ranger Suarez, or a player who has only so far seen the minor leagues. It’s still a human, who is sick.

As worried as the reports of an outbreak on my own life-partner team made me, I retained this hope: maybe the virus had only hit one team, even if that were my own. Perhaps the situation on other clubs might not be so dire.

But: It’s Everywhere

Unfortunately, that optimism has proved as untrue as all of the ‘new decade, new me’ and ‘welcome to the roaring 20s’ posts this past New Year’s Eve.

Because not only do Charlie Blackmon and Freddie Freeman have Covid-19, the list is growing. CBS lists many of the players or staff on 22 of MLB’s 30 teams that have tested positive.

As of this writing, the DiamondbacksJunior Guerra and Silvino Bracho have tested positive. Freeman’s teammates on the Braves, Pete Kozma, Touki Toussaint, and Will Smith have the virus. On the Red Sox, Darwinson Hernandez and Josh Taylor–an extremely nice young man whom I met last summer–both have Covid. The Rockies are also missing Phillip Diehl and Ryan Castellani, after they tested positive. All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, famously sturdy, has tested positive for Covid. The BrewersLuis Urias and Angel Perdomo carry the virus.

Four players on the Minnesota Twins have been hit: Miguel Sano, Willians Astudillo, Nick Gordon, and Edwar Colina. Yankees’ fans 2019 MVP DJ LeMahieu has tested positive, along with his teammate Luis Cessa. Socrates Brito and Blake Cederlind of the Pirates have the virus. The Cardinals players Ricardo Sanchez and Genesis Cabrera tested positive. Tommy Pham, the Padres having acquired his power-speed combo for, famously, “a slapdick prospect” (just kidding, I love you, Xavier Edwards) now has Covid. And the Rangers’ all-or-nothing slugger Joey Gallo, has also tested positive.

This doesn’t include the players on the White Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Giants, Mariners and defending World Series Champion Nationals, or the staff on the Cubs, who have tested positive but remain nameless.

But the season presses ahead.

Also Everywhere: A Severe Lack of Coordination

And then, multiple teams were forced to postpone their workouts because they still hadn’t received their test results, including the Athletics, Nationals and Astros. The people who were supposed to administer tests to the Angels didn’t show up, and the team was forced to do it themselves.

It feels worth mentioning that two of the eight teams that have not disclosed anything about positive tests still awaited their test results: the Astros and Athletics.

In order to have any hope for the players and staff, their testing must be dependable and consistent. And the results must come back quickly, or the frequency of the tests are almost moot. Nothing so far has demonstrated that we can expect these requirements to be met.

And yet: the season presses ahead.

The Inexorability of Expectation

Partly at issue is that we were all led to expect that we’d get baseball back in July. I myself optimistically espoused this opinion on the Athletic’s Poscast, more than once. We saw the MLB season shut down in March. However, that was with the vague promise that if we were very good and stayed home for a few months, our cities and our country would be safer. In essence, we were told, if we just ate the stringy kale of quarantine, we could have baseball ice-cream in a little plastic helmet.

But as a country, we have not eaten our stringy kale. Either that, or we’ve learned that we need to keep eating stringy kale for a lot longer, and this metaphor is really breaking down, but maybe it should, because the situation is dire enough that even kale’s constant assault on teeth doesn’t deserve the comparison.

My point is: we hatched this plan when we thought the coronavirus would have been beaten back along the same parabola that we see in most other developed countries. I mentioned in my last article that Germany and South Korea get to have sports now. They deserve it. We don’t.

These sentiments were, as usual, well-articulated by Foremost Baseball Human, Sean Doolittle. “Sports are like the reward of a functional society,” he said. “And we’re trying to bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve… We decided we’re done with it. If there aren’t sports, it’s because people aren’t wearing masks and the response has become so politicized.”

Thanks for explaining it without awkward comparisons to food, Sean.

But we don’t deserve sports. The NBA and NHL are also chugging towards resumptions of their seasons, but at least those leagues have plans in place for the teams to play in ‘bubbles.’ The MLB will be relying on the honor system, in a country in which we cannot all agree on what constitutes honor.

Shut it down.

My Well-Advertised Unhealthy Love of Baseball

To be clear, I deeply want baseball in 2020. I long for baseball. Any, tiny amount of baseball I might get this year I will take, hungrily, like someone licking a candy-bar wrapper after having been fed only bad kale metaphors.

I can’t say ‘no one wants baseball more than I do.’ But I think it is fair to say that of people who do not depend upon baseball for their livelihood, I rank in the 95th percentile of Extreme Thirst for Baseball. If there is one thing someone knows about me as a person, it’s that I love baseball. I enjoy other sports, but they do not slake my very particular baseball need. Generally, I consider that baseball-season me is the actual version of me, while during the off-season, I am a pale shadow of myself. Baseball may not be my business, but I put it on my business cards:

And oh yes, that is a baseball mousepad serving as a backdrop.

But the reason that I long for the MLB season, even when I am enjoying the occasional KBO broadcast, is because I love these players. Not just Aaron Nola and JT Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins. I love Xander Bogaerts. Max Scherzer. Ketel Marte. Noah Syndergaard, RIP his UCL. Luis Castillo. Mookie Betts. Shohei Ohtani. Juan Soto. Charlie Morton. Eloy Jimenez. Fransisco Lindor. Foremost Baseball Human Sean Doolittle. The A’s corner-infield Matts, Olson and Chapman. Anybody who knows me knows I love the corner-infield Matts! I love these guys.

But it’s not worth their health and safety to me, when proceeding with the MLB season seems so rampantly unsafe.

Let the Kids Play, Or Not

And speaking of my love for the players, I respect any player’s decision to sit out the season. Especially David Price, who has reached into his own pocket to pay minor league players a stipend in an organization for which he has yet to pitch.

But, on the other hand, I also respect any player currently throwing themselves into training for this 60 game MLB season with their sweet, whole hearts. And I understand. They’re baseball players. They want to play baseball.

Thinking of their wish to play created much angst for me during the negotiations between the league and the players. I couldn’t believe that the owners might fritter away the season due to short-sighted greed, knowing that there had to be many young players who just wanted to be back on the field. Or who were worried about losing time in their development. I feel this kind of thirst, myself, not just for baseball, but for the team sport that I play.

But I admired the way that the players stood, unified, behind their union. Those who have the money and the power will always try to take advantage of those who love what they do. Just because someone’s job is also a calling does not mean they waive the right to be treated fairly. Or to have safe, reliable protocols.

No Timetable for Return

Kind and well-meaning people have tried to solace me, as I spiral out about the impending MLB season, with talk of timetables for these players’ return. But the players’ youth and health does not preclude very serious damage to their health. We have seen this virus ravage young, healthy adults. An example strong in the minds of the theater community at this moment is the tragic passing of Nick Cordero, from complications due to Covid-19. He was 41. A Broadway singer/actor/dancer. He had no underlying health conditions.

And even if the players are in a lower-risk group, the staff is not. Their casualties are not more acceptable to me than Aaron Nola’s just because I don’t know their names and Aaron Nola is on my phone’s wallpaper. No one is safe; the risk feels needless.

Some people remain debilitatingly ill for months, even after being discharged from the hospital. And the journey back to health can wind. People experience unexpected setbacks, relapse into worse symptoms. We don’t know anything about the long-term health ramifications.

This is not a matter of penciling in a player’s return. This is not an oblique injury.

When Baseball Isn’t Baseball

But these conversations, centered around the games that players might miss, turn my stomach. Even when they’re intended as comfort. I’m not calling out anyone engaged in this speculation as uncaring, but I personally find it impossible to talk about as a sports issue. I can’t talk about how many starts someone might miss, when I’m really worried if they can breathe.

When I thought that six of the Phillies players projected to be on their opening day roster in March might have Covid, my concern wasn’t the Phillies’ chances in a 60 game season. My concern was their happiness and their health. These are my guys. If half their roster has the virus, and Zack Wheeler declines to play out of concern for his pregnant wife, it won’t matter if the Phillies lose 58 games. What will matter is what happens to those human beings.

And I can’t stop thinking that someone might die because we wanted them to entertain us. Someone who didn’t even know to opt out.

I can’t bear it.

And Yet

Some arguments that I have seen circulating assert that the MLB season should be canceled if it’s going to be a mish-mash of AAA talent subbing for superstars. I have no sympathy for this viewpoint, except insofar as we currently lobby for the same thing. Yes, my love of MLB is partly my love of the players I know, but I would watch anybody in a Phillies uniform and cheer for them until I am hoarse or my neighbors complain, whichever comes first.

Because if the season does happen, I’m certainly not going to boycott it. I will watch every second that I can. MLB.TV already has my yearly membership money, and if I choose not to watch it, after all of this pain and suffering, the only person I will be hurting is myself. And what repayment would it be, for the players and staff risking their lives for our enjoyment, to ignore them?

But I can’t ask it of them. Not now, with the virus spreading.

Not for me, and not for my entertainment.

Shut it down.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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