On March 12, Major League Baseball announced it was cancelling spring training and delaying the start of the 2020 season — then scheduled for March 26.
On that day, the United States reported 414 cases of the COVID-19 virus. MLB’s decision looked wise. By the time that the intended Opening Day had rolled around, the U.S. counted 16,916 new virus cases in a single day.
Today, Major League Baseball finally starts playing, in what will be the shortest season since 1878 and surely the strangest ever. Everything about this season will have an asterisk. We’re also now averaging more than 66,200 new virus cases a day — more than 160 times what we had on the day MLB first put off the season. Play ball.
Sports have often been harbingers of social change. Baseball began purging Black players from its rosters in the 1880s — at a time when even some Southern states were electing Black leaders to public office. Baseball’s segregation foreshadowed the coming of Jim Crow. Baseball also saw Jackie Robinson break the modern-day color line in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As recently as this spring, it was sports leagues that signaled the seriousness of the pandemic before our political leaders did. On March 12, the day that Major League Baseball put off Opening Day, the NCAA did something even more drastic — it cancelled its lucrative March Madness men’s basketball tournament. Not until the next day did President Trump declare a national emergency. Not until three days later did Gov. Ralph Northam start limiting crowd sizes in Virginia. Sports leagues were willing to act — and give up lots of money — before some politicians were willing to risk their precious approval ratings. Now more than four months later, sports are still telling us things that some of our politicians won’t. Namely, we can’t pretend things are normal, because they’re not.
Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have gathered — or are gathering — their teams into protective “bubbles.” In effect, they are instituting a lockdown more restrictive than anything any state government in the country has even thought about imposing. Even then, soccer has seen two of its teams — Dallas and Nashville — withdraw from play because of virus outbreaks. On the other hand, the NBA says only two of its players have tested positive after being quarantined inside their complex in Orlando — a sign that draconian lockdowns really can work.
Major League Baseball is either the bravest or most foolhardy of all the leagues because it’s trying to play a truncated regular season schedule in home ballparks, albeit without fans. Well, 29 of 30 home ballparks. Canada has ruled that Americans are too dangerous to associate with, which means the Toronto Blue Jays are now homeless.
We spent the first three years of the Trump administration arguing over a border wall with Mexico, only to find that Canada has now effectively erected one against us. Canada’s unease about having the Blue Jays flying all over the virus-ridden East Coast and then back again is understandable. Canada’s virus count peaked on May 4 and has been going down ever since, while ours has kept going up. All of Canada recorded just 339 new cases on Tuesday; just the state of Virginia alone is logging more than twice that (our daily average is now 737), and we’re one of the better states. Florida — home to two teams that the Blue Jays will be visiting — is logging about 10,000 new cases per day.
Every time you see the Blue Jays on television — and if you’re a fan of an East Coast team, you’ll see them more than you normally would given the reconfigured schedules — here’s what you should remember: Our closest neighbor thinks we’re too disease-ridden to allow even quarantined athletes to ride in specially-sanitized vehicles from the airport to their hotel and the ballpark and back again.
This point cannot be stressed enough: The United States is unusual among developed nations. Others have generally gotten the virus under control. We have not. Starting tonight, we may see some ballplayers crush some curves, but we as a nation haven’t crushed the one that matters most. We need to think about why that is. We should also do something more than just think, because thinking alone sure hasn’t defeated the virus. We simply haven’t tried hard enough — not our governments, and not our citizenry.
Other sports leagues are trying to tell us this, too. At the same time that governments are making plans to reopen schools in the fall — with some changes, to be sure — some college leagues are shutting down fall football completely. The Virginia High School League is poised to do the same when its executive committee meets on Monday. Many leagues are holding out hope for spring football. Other college conferences are going with pared-down conference-only schedules to reduce travel. Maybe they can make that work, but no one should be surprised if even they decide to forgo fall football, as well. What are these sports leagues saying that politicians — and everyone else — should be paying attention to?
Here’s something we should be paying attention to: Back in January, the United States and South Korea reported their first virus cases on the same day. The two nations reacted very differently. The U.S. — some of its politicians, some of its citizens — did not take the virus seriously. South Korea did. And that’s why the Korean baseball league has been playing since early May and our baseball league is just now trying to return — with no guarantee that it can finish even an abbreviated season. If we had reacted the way South Korea did— with a government that rolled out rapid and extensive testing and contact tracing, and with a citizenry not gullible enough to believe conspiracy theories but more inclined to follow scientific advice — how many lives would that have saved?
Baseball’s return tonight will be a welcome return to some sense of normal life, but it doesn’t mean things are back to normal. The virus is not gone. In fact, it’s spreading, and we’re the ones spreading it. If we want to see fall football, or even spring football, or anything at all in 2021, we’d better get serious soon.
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