Anyone foolish enough to believe that baseball’s ability to start this 60-game season says much about its chances to finish got a quick reality check Thursday when World Series hero Juan Soto of the Nationals was sidelined before the Nats opened the MLB season against the Yankees because he tested positive for COVID-19.
Not only did one of the game’s brightest young stars go on the injured list indefinitely, but one of the weaknesses in MLB’s testing system was exposed as well — pointing to a risk that now increases as teams start playing games every day.
“The virus is still obviously in control,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “and the national trends still are not good. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
It’s against this backdrop that the oldest major professional sports league in America opens a season that already is its shortest, latest, riskiest and by far most surreal in its 145-year history.
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Hot spots in a global pandemic are surging across much of the MLB map as teams start traveling, tempering for many the joy of long-awaited season openers even before the Soto news spotlighted the increased challenges teams face as they begin traveling outside their individual bubbles.
Soto last played in the Nats’ exhibition game Tuesday, which was also a test day on the team's every-other-day testing schedule. That test produced the positive result but not until Soto had spent the day in between around teammates.
Soto was reportedly asymptomatic and the only Nationals player whose result was positive. But they can’t know how many teammates were exposed to possible infection by Soto until at least Saturday, when Thursday’s results are due.
It all played out a few hours before MLB launched the season.
The Cubs, who open the season Friday night against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, are believed to be the only team that has not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than three weeks ago.
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Epstein said he had concerns going into the month but that it’s “gone better than expected in a lot of ways.”
But he quickly added: “It’s not a time to spike the ball or say ‘mission accomplished’ or anything like that because we’re really just starting, and there’s so much uncertainty ahead.”
Eleven teams — more than one-third of MLB — play in coronavirus hot spots: California (five), Arizona (one), Texas (two), Georgia (one) and Florida (two).
The Toronto Blue Jays still were scrambling Thursday to find a place to play home games after Canada essentially kicked MLB out of the country, refusing to allow games to be played there during the pandemic.
And the Kansas City Royals — one of the nine teams the Cubs are scheduled to play — just reported an eighth positive test Thursday among players since intake testing began (their manager had the virus last month).
“We’re still very aware of our responsibility going forward and the risks that lie ahead,” Epstein said, “and we have to continue to have perfect execution with what we can control because we know there’s so much we can’t control.”
First baseman Anthony Rizzo said he wasn’t sure baseball was going to play a season even when he showed up for camp early this month. “There was still a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “And there still is.”
But he said “all of us have signed up for this” and that he expects to put the risk out of his mind when it’s time to play. “I know all the protocols will be in place as far as travel and planes will be sanitized before we leave,” he said. “Everything is in place for us to be as safe as possible so when we do get to play, for most of the guys, they can go in with the mentality of, ‘Let’s just play baseball.’“
Left fielder Kyle Schwarber said this week he found comfort in the frequency of the testing when it comes to the increased risk when games start.
“Obviously, if you’re out there on the field, presumably you’re clear,” he said.
Or not necessarily, as the Soto case showed.
“Obviously, we have our protocols,” Schwarber said. “We’re going to distance ourselves as much as we can, on the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, things like that — wearing a mask around the clubhouse — trying to keep each other safe.”
And yet through all the uneasiness over whether baseball or any other league should even be trying to play games when 146,000 people in this country have been killed by the virus, there’s also a persistent sense that it might provide at least small refuge for many during a time of such great national pain.
“I’m starting to certainly feel excited about the season even as I remain mindful of the burden that we all have to protect one another and everyone out there to pull this off in a safe manner,” said Epstein.
Schwarber said people he passed on the street while walking his dog in the neighborhood the other day were letting him know how excited they were. “Can’t wait till Friday!” one shouted at him.
“I think it’s going to mean a lot for this city and just in the country overall,” he said.
Said Epstein: “We all have an awareness of what the country and the world — what we’re all going through. And that concern never goes away.
“But through all the crises that we’ve faced as a nation and all the tragedies, there’s always been a place for baseball, and it’s always been as a helping hand or sorts to assist people in getting back to normal and helping the country as a whole get through it.
“It’s always been about our ability as an industry to pull this off safely,” he added, “but if we can continue to do that, what a great feeling that’ll be to provide some much-needed entertainment and joy to people who have been through so much already this year in a number of areas.”
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