That’s all it took for Nippon Professional Baseball, the top pro league in Japan, to experience its first positive tests for COVID-19.
Two players, including a reigning league MVP, tested positive just one day after the league started playing exhibition games. What happens next is unknown. Opening Day in Japan is set for June 19, just 16 days from now.
Major League Baseball doesn’t have a scheduled Opening Day at the moment, the league and players’ union trying to figure out how players will be paid in a shortened season team owners claim will have disastrous economic consequences.
But as the fiscal fight grabs headlines, the biggest question remains how a season can be safely played in the middle of a pandemic. While it sounds like money still has a greater chance to derail a 2020 season than the coronavirus does — still, though, national reporters seem sure there will be baseball played this year — the players, saving their comments on the matter until they could comment on the economic proposal, as well, said the two sides were apart on health and safety, too.
To MLB’s credit, the league is taking that issue seriously, sending 60-something pages’ worth of health-and-safety proposals to the players that included everything from testing to bans on in-game spitting and on-site showers.
But for as many details as there were, there were questions left unanswered. And now that positive tests have instantly come to pro baseball in Japan, those questions demand answers.
MLB pitched a testing strategy that included players being tested multiple times a week, but not daily. Plus, the kinds of tests used for asymptomatic players would not deliver results for 24 hours.
Those two details combined seem to make for a situation in which an asymptomatic player could arrive at the ballpark, get tested, play a game and therefore interact with not only players from his own team but players from the opposing team, get on an airplane, travel to another city and arrive at another ballpark before knowing he tested positive, exposing many to the virus both at and away from the ballpark.
Even more worrisome was the league’s desire not to have a positive test result shut down a team, multiple teams or the league as a whole while recommended quarantining was practiced. Major League Baseball would not require teammates of a player who tests positive to quarantine, flaunting the contact-tracing guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After several players balked at the idea of being confined to hotel rooms and ballparks when a plan for a quarantined season in Arizona was being discussed, the league’s official health-and-safety proposals didn’t mandate that players had to stay in their hotel rooms on the road — even while it did mandate such restrictions on movement for other members of the traveling party — increasing the risk of the virus coming into the league from an outside source.
And let's remember that there are vastly more people than just the players that will be needed to stage a season. The more people involved, the higher the risk of spreading the virus within the game.
So while bans on Gatorade coolers and mound visits are all well and good, even viewed by some players as excessive, the most effective measures for preventing the spread of the virus are perhaps not stringent enough.
It remains to be seen what will happen in Japan, how that league handles these positive tests and whether more positive tests pop up in the wake of these first two. But the coronavirus will not stop at the ballpark gate. And Major League Baseball needs to make sure it’s doing everything it can as best it can to keep its players safe, or risk a season — however long — in which players could get sick and get others sick, too.