An unfamiliar sign welcomed me to Illinois at my first stop in the state. I couldn’t say which town I was in. When you’re on a 12-hour drive from Oklahoma City to Chicago, jurisdictions all start running together. Our stops were simply determined by the moving truck’s gas tank and my traveling party’s bladders.
The sign was printed on a wrinkled piece of printer paper, stuck on the inside of the glass gas station door with a couple of pieces of scotch tape. In contrast to its humble appearance, the sign relayed an important reminder: masks are required, per Governor JB Pritzker.
When I stepped inside, however, it became immediately clear that few at this particular gas station were heeding that warning.
This weekend, I packed my life into a moving truck and traveled through three states to start a new job as a Cubs writer for NBC Sports Chicago. In just that 12-hour sprint, I witnessed a wide variety of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short term, that variance was a hurdle for me, as I did my best to dodge infection.
Looking further out, that variance not only across states, but even within them, is a complication Major League Baseball will continue to grapple with as it makes plans to start the season.
On Monday, MLB owners approved a proposal to start the 2020 season. The plan, which would need player support to make it a reality, laid out an 82-game season. Teams would only play others in their geographical region -- the Cubs would play teams in the NL Central and AL Central. By the time the regular season begins, the league reportedly hopes to play all games in home ballparks. But if that isn't realistic, teams would have the option to share with another team or use their own spring training facilities.
Of course, the teams will have access to resources that I didn’t. All proposals for the resumption of baseball have included regular testing, and teams certainly won’t be making stops at high-traffic gas stations off the interstate. But any travel, even if it’s just in the NL and AL Central, requires some degree of a laissez faire attitude, and a great deal of trust.
I’d rented moving trucks before, but this was my first time wondering how it had been cleaned after the last person dropped it off. Penske, the company I rented from, assures its customers on its website that it has ramped up the sanitation of its trucks and facilities, as well as encouraged its associates to take extra health and safety precautions.
I was comfortable enough with that promise. Plus, I had been covering the Thunder for the past two seasons, so I was picking up the truck in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma County had recorded about 100 cases of COVID-19 (127.5 per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times). The outbreak was much less dense than in Chicago. Cook County’s 53,000-plus cases factor out to be more than 1,000 per 100,000 people.
Still, a podcast I had listened to a month ago came to mind. On ESPN Daily, MLB insider Jeff Passan talked to former MLB pitcher Dan Straily about his recent experience in the Korean Baseball Organization this season.
“The baseballs haven’t been touched by seven people to get to you,” Straily told Passan. “They’ve been touched by the ball boy and the umpire, which is still two too many when you’re going to be touching your face in times like this. But at the same time, you know that those people walked through the same security precautions to get into the stadium.”
How many people touched my truck before it got to me? What about a charter plane scheduled to carry a baseball team? How many is too many? It only takes one contagious person to set off a chain reaction.
The goal becomes limiting risk because at this point; there’s no clear way to eliminate it. That's even more true when travel is involved.
Limiting travel between regions helps. But even in the Midwest, there’s a difference from county to county in severity of outbreaks, mandated coronavirus precautions and the enforcement of those orders. During my first stop in Illinois, I watched an unmasked man serve pizza to an unmasked customer.
It’s been two days since then. So far I feel as healthy as ever. I hope that remains the case for the next couple weeks. But before I left Oklahoma City, I weighed the risks and decided baseball was worth it.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.