That, less than a week away from the start of a second round of spring training, we’re still talking about aspects of the 2020 season with “ifs” instead of “whens” should be all the illustration you need.
Major League Baseball has a huge hurdle to clear in staging even a shortened campaign in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. There will most likely be some alarming numbers later this week, when players start testing positive for COVID-19.
The NBA and NHL recently experienced a roughly 5-percent positive rate when those leagues tested their players returning after a three-month layoff. But with 1,800 baseball players showing up to big league camps and alternate training sites across the country, even if the percentage is the same, the number will be much higher.
Sixteen positive tests in the NBA might not have set off nationwide alarm bells. What about around 100 positive tests in baseball?
That number could be even bigger considering the number of players coming from their homes in Florida, Arizona and Texas, where the number of COVID-19 infections is surging.
The rise in cases in those states and many others has given new fuel to the argument that it might not be a good idea for a U.S. pro sports league to stage a season in the middle of a pandemic. Players have been adamant that they want to get back to work. But should they?
“If you would have asked me that question a week ago, it would have been a resounding ‘yes.’ But you see how different things can change with the virus over a short amount of time,” White Sox catcher James McCann said Friday. “We don’t really know what tomorrow holds. You see what’s going on in states like Texas and Florida right now. You just hope and pray that things start to slow down.”
“But I think we are at a point now, the point of no return. If we don’t start now, I don’t think it’s possible to get a season in.
“The measures the league and union have taken to create the health and safety protocol, it’s the best we are going to get. We can’t sit around and wait and think the virus is going to disappear. The virus is going to be here. We put the safety measures in place and have the players abiding by those rules and do everything they can to keep themselves healthy and their teammates healthy.”
Even as the league and the union were still trying to figure out if there would be a season or not — a discussion that made money the priority instead of the players’ health and safety — there were positive tests popping up around the game. The Philadelphia Phillies experienced an outbreak at their spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida. So, too, did the Toronto Blue Jays at their facility in Dunedin, Florida. The Colorado Rockies had multiple players test positive, including All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon. The Texas Rangers had several people test positive after their front-office employees were required to return to work.
And this is all before the testing of players reporting to camp even begins.
The White Sox, according to general manager Rick Hahn, had experienced no positive tests among players or staff when he spoke with the media last Thursday, though Hahn mentioned that the intake for the second round of spring training had not yet begun.
Playing amid a pandemic has been something that’s been talked about in the abstract, but it’s finally about to start happening in practice. Three weeks of camp, beginning later this week, will yield to a sprint of a season that features 60 games in 66 days.
Even with a health-and-safety document containing more than 100 pages’ worth of preventative measures — including that ban on spitting you’ve heard so much about, plus social-distancing practices on the field, in the clubhouse and in the dugout — the numbers that are about to start coming out of camps around the league are going to be worrisome for those involved.
“I don't think anyone feels 100 percent comfortable going in. We are dealing with a pandemic in this country,” White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito said. “I know that I've done pretty much everything I can here at home to stay away from it and practice the right kind of social distancing. I'd hope that a lot of my teammates have, as well.
“I feel like the protocols in place for when we are at the field are very, very strict. … My biggest worry is what players are doing away from the field. I know that I'm just going to be going home and back to my apartment, playing video games, passing the time before I get to go back to the field, go back to work again. I want to make sure us as a team, every player is following the correct guidelines and we are staying as safe as possible while we are taking these risks.”
As Giolito mentioned, just because there are a ton of safety measures in place doesn’t mean the players' safety is assured. It will be generally up to players to be responsible away from the field. Will they forego the typical behavior of people their age, staying away from bars, restaurants and other crowded locations? Saturday in Wrigleyville, many 20- and 30-somethings did not. In Florida and Texas, bars opened only to close again amid the surge in cases in those states.
Socially distanced mound visits, players sitting in the stands instead of the dugout, replacing baseballs more frequently, that’s all well and good. But even in baseball — not a body-to-body contact sport like basketball or football — it’s impossible to always keep a safe distance.
“I don’t care how many safety measures are put in place. As a catcher, I have an umpire behind me and a hitter in the box. That’s not six feet apart from each other,” McCann said. “To be able to have the trust in each other and pitchers throwing the ball and if he’s been out the night before doing something and catches something, the next thing you know the entire infield is fielding ground balls off the bat and touching the same thing pitchers have been touching.
“There are so many unknowns. I think the biggest thing is preaching to each other to control what you can control. Be smart and take care of the stuff off the field as best as you can.”
McCann and Giolito are both showing up to camp on the South Side. But they’re taking it seriously enough that they’re leaving their family members behind. Giolito’s wife is studying in veterinary medicine and won’t be accompanying him to Chicago. McCann’s young children will be staying behind in Tennessee.
The players are going back to work. But the pandemic remains top of mind.
And so we will continue to use “ifs” in place of “whens.” If players can behave responsibility and not bring COVID-19 into their clubhouses. If the positive tests this week include star players, who would then have to miss most if not all of the second round of spring training. If baseball’s health and safety measures are strict enough.
If baseball can complete the season.
Like McCann said, “We don’t really know what tomorrow holds.”