The 2020 baseball season is about to start for the San Diego Padres.
“The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”*
So far this year, that constant has been upended just like most of modern life. As confusing, confounding, and alarming as Act One of 2020 has been, who knows what the next six months will bring?
Baseball (to say nothing of the United States and the rest of the world) has not experienced anything like the current pandemic since 1918 when Babe Ruth still played for the Boston Red Sox. The “Spanish” flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, lasted from February 1918 to April 1920 and killed 67,000 Americans. Like this year, play paused while the league and players bickered over salaries, and the season was shortened.
The 1918 pandemic occurred in four waves. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, an expert in infectious diseases and member of the Coronavirus Task Force, the U.S. is in the first wave. While daily test results showed a mini plateau in late May and early June, the curve has since spiked partly caused by people gathering during holiday celebrations, including Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Recently the U.S. collectively hit three million cases, approximately one-quarter of the world’s total. Even more unsettling, it took approximately three months to reach one million cases, one and a half months to reach two million but less than a month to reach the current grim numbers. The latest Coronavirus reports indicate that multiple states with the highest number of confirmed cases include those with one or more MLB teams, namely California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona.
Although Major League Baseball released a 101-page operations manual meant to guide teams through the truncated season in late June, the manual has already grown as the league makes adjustments in the fluid situation. The manual’s protocols affect players and other personnel (designated as covered individuals or CI) only while at the ballpark. Frequent testing and temperature checks will be required, and CI must report contacts with infected people.
In the dugout, players must maintain six-feet distancing and keep gloves and hats in their specific area. Hand washing and frequent sanitizing of surfaces will be the rule with meetings held outside whenever possible. Face coverings will be required everywhere except on the field.
However, Fernando Tatis Jr. has made a point of wearing a face mask even when on the field, saying that he not only wants to feel safe himself but wants to protect those around him. Franchy Cordero joined him in donning face covering during the first workout, but other players did not. This should hardly come as a surprise as masks have become a political statement rather than a simple preventive measure.
A genuinely insidious virus, Coronavirus can actually float through the air in droplets and infect anyone in reach. That makes it especially dangerous in closed-in spaces, making locker rooms a pandemic paradise. Therefore, non-essential personnel will be banned from locker rooms, and only half of the 40 clubhouse stalls will be used to allow distancing. Touchless hand sanitizers will be available everywhere from the dugout to the batting cages.
This year as teams start workouts with a backdrop of frequent testing, so far, 41 positive tests have been revealed. The Padres reported that Tommy Pham, as well as Jorge Mateo, have tested positive. Of the other teams in the National League West, the Arizona Diamondbacks have revealed five players, the Colorado Rockies three, the San Francisco Giants two. The Dodgers have acknowledged positive tests but have not named the players affected, while seven players, including closer Kenley Jansen, have not joined the team yet.
Teams and the league can only reveal positive test results with the player’s permission. To return to their teams, players will be required to have two negative tests at least 24 hours apart and an average temperature for 72 hours.
According to current plans, the abbreviated MLB season will begin on July 23, the Padres’ season the following evening at Arizona against the Diamondbacks. Thus will begin a sprint rather than the usual marathon with San Diego’s season-ending in San Francisco in a day game against the Giants on September 27. The team will start with 52 games in 55 days.
In a shortened season, every pitch, every at-bat, every play on the field matters more than in the usual 162-game marathon. This could severely test younger players and those on the bubble in particular. However, the increased urgency might even induce Manny Machado to enter into the Heart and Hustle Award sweepstakes. (Last year, Tatis Jr. won the award for the Padres.) Perhaps Eric Hosmer, another guy with a big contract, can repeat last year’s fast start.
Multiple prognosticators have named the Padres as one of the teams with playoff potential thanks in part to the shortened season. Since the Dodgers have dominated the Padres and won the division the last seven years, a wild card would be the most likely path to the playoffs.
For the Padres, play will be limited to teams in the National and American League West. Last year, the Padres had a losing record against every team in those divisions expect the Seattle Mariners. But with a healthy Tatis Jr., promising young pitchers like Chris Paddack, and savvy veterans like Hosmer and Machado, the Padres could change the dynamic. After all, last year, after 60 games, the Padres had a positive record.
However, as much as Padres fans have looked forward to this season and fans, in general, may need the game more than ever, the wisdom and ethics of playing a during a pandemic must be taken into account. Although resources aren’t as scarce as they were in March when baseball shut down, there is still a shortage of test kits as well as delays in results. Even more disheartening, the curve shows no sign of leveling out, let alone declining. With no downward trend in sight, ICUs in states like Florida are at or near capacity.
Players may be of an age group less prone to exhibit serious symptoms of Covid-19, but contacts within the community, including their own families, could be endangered. They will be forced to make hard choices, especially those with pregnant wives and new babies.
Just as this year has been like no other since 1918, baseball in general as well as individual players will have to make gut-wrenching choices with unknowable consequences.
*Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, “Field of Dreams.”