After a more than three month wait, Major League Baseball held its Opening Day last week, with American sports fans rejoicing. Of the four major team sporting leagues (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA), baseball was the first to initiate play after the COVID-19 pandemic broke the flood gates and spilled across the country.
While other countries, like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, have minimized the spread of the virus for months, the numbers in the USA keep rising. Fans will not be in the stands for the foreseeable future at American games, but the east Asian countries, with daily new numbers in the dozens, not thousands, have reached a safe place where spectators are now allowed to return.
What’s worse, for Americans, at least, is not that they cannot attend games — but that whether the fans realize it or not, the games on the field are walking on the cliff’s edge of actually continuing.
In just three days since the start of the season, the Miami Marlins had four players test positive for COVID-19 — and all more than a day after taking the test. By Monday morning, Day 4, that number had turned to 11 players and two coaches, which meant more than 1/3 of the locker room was infected. Monday’s home opener against Baltimore was postponed.
It’s not just Miami, a punchline of a franchise for much of its almost 30-year existence, that has to worry. The Philadelphia Phillies just played three games against the club, not knowing players on the field, in the dugouts and sharing the same stadium were positive. The New York Yankees were to follow the Marlins into Philly, meaning that the entire facility will need more sanitation than before — let alone finding out if other players on the Phillies also have COVID-19. Their game Monday was also postponed.
Elsewhere in baseball, Cincinnati also has had three players test positive over the weekend. With locker rooms of 30 players right now, that’s 10% that went down in a weekend. Sure, if you wanted to treat it as an injury, then it’s par for the course. The difference is that arm soreness or blisters aren’t highly contagious.
Before the Summer Camp restart happened, some notable players from across the baseball world were opting out of playing — Ryan Zimmerman, Buster Posey, Felix Hernandez, David Price and Ian Desmond. Mike Trout, arguably the game’s best player and biggest star over the past decade, nearly opted out as a precaution because his wife is in the latter stages of her pregnancy.
The threat of COVID-19 spreading in sports is actually less worrisome about going from world-class athlete to world-class athlete, but more about the aging coaches, support staffers and player’s families with young children becoming part of the spread. And then the possibility of those people spreading it to their classrooms, neighbors and friends.
When 10% or more of a team is hit in one weekend, the fear now becomes “how many more are there?” Asymptomatic carriers are carrying the virus and can host the virus without symptoms for up to two weeks. While baseball players are tested every day, the results are not instant, and days of waiting leads to more time being around one another, which makes the chance at spreading even higher — as seen with the Marlins.
What’s worse, while the NHL and NBA are set to restart their paused seasons in “bubbles,” MLB is traveling from city to city. In the NBA, players are not supposed to leave the “bubble,” thus minimizing the risk of an outbreak.
Professional sports are big business, don’t get me wrong. Literally billions of dollars are at stake. But some leadership understands that sports plays second fiddle to health during a global pandemic. For instance, Canada, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, has shunned the club from playing in its home ballpark this summer. The Blue Jays looked into many options to play on short notice — their spring training home in Florida — the petri-dish of COVID-19 — Pittsburgh and Baltimore to name a few. Instead, the Blue Jays will call Buffalo, where its Triple-A club is located, home. Minor League Baseball is shut down for the season, so the stadium is open.
Baseball’s return is under serious threat after just one weekend of games in 15 cities without fans. What will football be like, with 80 players and 20-some coaches and training staff on hand for preseason camp? What will games be like when rosters sit at about 50?
How will college football respond? Michigan State had enough positive tests last week it was pausing its camp and quarantining players for 14 days to fight it. The Big Ten, which oversees Michigan State and Wisconsin, is only playing conference games this year. What if a team like MSU decides the potential $100 million profit of a college season isn’t enough to keep going and shuts down?
Well, then we go right back to where we were May 1, where it was quiet. Almost too quiet. By now, though, we should be used to it.
— Adam Krebs is a reporter for the Times and can be reached at email@example.com.