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Preparing for a Yankees season that doesn’t feel right

The team’s exhibition games have given us a taste of baseball’s delights, but the dire national situation turns that taste sour.

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MLB: Exhibition-New York Mets at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night, what long seemed like a mirage will become a reality. Gerrit Cole will toe the rubber in the nation’s capital, and the Yankees will take on Max Scherzer and the defending champion Washington Nationals in the first game of the season.

That’s about all I can say for certain. As to whether the game should be played, I don’t entirely know. I don’t exactly know how I feel about the game being played. I don’t know how we will look back at this entire venture whenever it ends, in 100 days or in one month or in one week.

As this version of Opening Day has approached, I’ve personally had trouble working through what it will look and feel like to watch and cover a baseball season held during a pandemic. That uncertainty stems from the simple fact that we have been tasked with following and analyzing an enterprise that, maybe, just shouldn’t be happening.

From the perspective of this particular layman, the baseball season sounds dangerous for a pair of reasons. On one hand, staging a season could put thousands of people at risk of getting sick with a potentially deadly virus, a novel pathogen whose short- and long-term effects are still being studied. On the other, if the season can be staged, doing so safely will require an enormous amount of resources, resources that could likely be better directed to vulnerable people and essential workers.

I suppose I’ll preface this with the modern proverb, “I am not a doctor, nor a scientist.” I will defer to those experts, however, who assert that while most who catch the coronavirus will recover, the virus can wreak all kinds of havoc on the body of an infected person. Various studies indicate the virus could kill something like 0.5 to 1 percent of those who catch it, though that rate may be falling due to advancements in treatment and with the recent spate of young people falling ill. Others show that some recovered patients, including asymptomatic ones, show serious aftereffects, such as diminished lung capacity, blood cots, or damage to the brain.

Baseball players themselves are unlikely to catch the virus while they actually play baseball. But when they congregate in clubhouses, ride on planes and buses, and spend time in their home city and other cities they travel to? The series of interactions and journeys required to put on a season seems incredibly difficult to pull off without some kind of spread, given the level of infection in communities across the United States.

If a baseball player catches the virus from a fellow teammate or family member or a stranger, gets on a plane, travels to a different city, and potentially exposes hundreds of people, that seems reason enough to hold back on staging a season. Professional athletes have every reason to avoid catching a virus that could impact lung capacity, their hearts, their brains; moreover, every human being that professional athletes interact with, their families, coaches, doctors, waiters, bus drivers, has every reason to as well.

And yet, imagine MLB could stage a safe season with a rigorous testing program (one that has already sprung embarrassing leaks) and a stellar level of compliance regarding safety protocols from every person involved. Even then, would it be worth it if doing so meant a COVID-19 test or treatment that could have gone to a healthcare worker, an essential worker, an elderly person, or, really, anyone, went to a baseball player instead?

Baseball currently plans to test all of its players every other day, with results coming back within a day or two. Other team personnel will also receive some level of testing. That amounts to tens or hundreds of thousands of tests over the course of the short season. MLB planned on running their testing program through an independent lab in Utah, but reports have already emerged that teams are looking elsewhere to get their athletes tested.

Contrast that to the stories of people in areas with rampant community spread waiting hours in line to get a test, and waiting a week or more to get their results. It’s theoretically possible that, via the use of their own lab, MLB could argue that any test a MLB player receives wasn’t a test that ordinarily would have gone to an anonymous citizen. Given the disastrous rollout of the league’s testing program that immediately led to teams working around that Utah-based lab, does that seem like a guarantee? And if MLB actually could direct their entire program through a private lab, does it feel right that that lab wasn’t simply used to aid with the testing of others?

I truly don’t know the answers to all these questions. I do know that preparing to watch and enjoy a baseball season at this moment in time feels off. It feels shaky, uncertain, amoral. I don’t know if it will be worth it, and I don’t know if it will even be fun, given the risks involved, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton dingers aside.

Some may ask us to focus on baseball. Well, we will, but to focus on baseball today requires us to focus on the conditions under which it is being played. We cannot divorce the story of the 2020 MLB season from the story of a pandemic; they are one in the same when MLB holds its season during a worsening pandemic. We will give our thoughts as analysts and fans of the sport we love, and that will demand we acknowledge and consider the context the league has decided to play within.

I will tune in to Thursday night’s game. I’ll probably be entertained at points. It’s hard not to be stirred just a little by the prospect of Cole vs. Scherzer, of Judge, Gleyber Torres, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, all on the same field. But it’s impossible to just grin and bear it through it all. With every 6-3 putout, strikeout looking, sacrifice fly, opposite field home run, and caught stealing, fans will be forced to both revel in the events on the field and ponder whether the broader national emergency means the players should be pulled off the field at once.