Considering how smoothly everything went in spring training, you’d be forgiven for believing that Major League Baseball had learned from the 2020 season and had figured out how to have a season largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
First came the intake tests, which saw a 0.3% positivity rate — only 13 positives out of 4336 tests. Since then, only 38 positives have back out of 92,896 tests, a 0.04% positivity rate. With multiple teams already having begun the process to have the players vaccinated — most notably the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels, and Houston Astros — it became easy to wonder if the league could avoid a major outbreak this season.
Alas, that would not be so, as right before Opening Day, the Washington Nationals had four positive tests, plus five more players in quarantine after contract tracing. Because of this, the entire opening series between the Nationals and the New York Mets was canceled. The Mets will now open their season on Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies.
At the moment, the Nationals are preparing to open against the Atlanta Braves, but at this point, that’s best case scenario: in a video call with players, Washington GM Mike Rizzo said, “We’re in crisis management mode.” In truth, this could spiral out of control, as we saw with the Miami Marlins last season, who went more than a week between games at the start of the season due to 17 players testing positive in five days (that outbreak also spread to the Phillies and caused them to miss a week of action as well). A few days later, an outbreak among the St. Louis Cardinals caused them to miss two full weeks of the season.
As much as we all want everything to return back to normal as quickly as possible, that’s just not going to happen. The league got lucky with this opening series: as division rivals, the Mets and Nationals play each other quite a bit, and there will be plenty of opportunities to make these games up without resorting to a six-game series with three double headers. But what if, say, an outbreak forces the Yankees series in Cleveland later this month to get canceled? They don’t play each other again until September, and that’s a three-game set in the Bronx. The league’s going to have to get creative. And if that happens on multiple occasions? The league’s going to have to get very creative.
Of course, although it will be impossible to completely prevent infections until enough of the population has been vaccinated that we’ve reached herd immunity and community spread is gone, there’s a simple way to significantly reduce the odds: get players vaccinated. Hypothetically, that shouldn’t be too difficult. In many states, most or all players are already eligible for the vaccine or will be in the next few days — in the continental United States, the latest date for universal adult eligibility is May 1.
However, it is easier said than done. Despite a very strong incentive from the league and players’ union through the relaxing of protocols when 85% of the team is vaccinated, multiple prominent players have either come out against vaccines or have sown doubt in the way they’ve worded their “no comments” (see Trevor Bauer’s comment vs. Christian Yelich’s). While I do have some confidence that all 30 teams will hit the 85% threshold relatively early in the season, it might take longer than one would hope.
Moreover, it’s not just the players that need to be vigilant. Sporting events have the potential to be super-spreader events if the right protocols are not followed. One just has to look at the Champions league match between Milan and Valencia that became a “biological bomb,” becoming the epicenter of a major outbreak. Sure, nobody at the time knew that the virus was present and spreading in Italy — it was two days before the first local case — but that shows just how important these protocols are. You can’t have fans reaching out to touch Aaron Judge and trying to rip out a $5 baseball from his glove. Of course, part of that is the fault of the Yankees in the first place: why are fans even in the front seats to begin with? Still, in the absence of teams not doing the due diligence to keep their fans safe (looking at you, Texas Rangers), fans also need to be careful until we’ve got all this behind us.
The light is finally near the end of the tunnel, and with it the hope that we will soon be able to come out the other side of this dark time. But the battle is not over, and as the season begins, everybody involved — players, team staff, even you and me alike — must do our share to keep everyone safe. Strap your seat belts on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.