Broadcaster Bob Costas talks to The Reporters Inc. about the fate of major league baseball in the pandemic.

Baseball in the Age of COVID-19

Will America's Favorite Pastime Go Down Swinging?


Editor’s Note: Since this story was first published, outbreaks of COVID-19 have spread among Major League Baseball teams. Both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have reported several positive coronavirus tests among players and staff. Both teams temporarily suspended their seasons before resuming play in early August.

 

July 2020

BY ALANA SCHREIBER

A pack of baseball cards. That was the trade-off for my attendance at Sunday School. While growing up, my twin sister Julie and I were carted off to a much-too-early morning of Jewish education under the condition that we would receive a pack of Topps baseball cards from our father immediately after class ended. We would then spend the car ride home from the store pouring over our cards and, from the backseat of our minivan, asking our dad to carefully describe each player we discovered in the pack.

For 27 years, my dad, Jay Schreiber, was a New York Times sports editor and for much longer than that he has been a fan of the often-dismal New York Mets. While he covered everything from basketball to football to soccer, he was, for many years, the go-to baseball guy. Thus, my identity as a Mets fan was never so much of a choice as much as it was an inherited trait. One of my earliest memories is running up to my dad at the corner of our old street in Forest Hills, Queens on his way home from work, and asking, “Did the Mets win?” I also remember not being entirely sure what “the Mets” was, but I knew that was the question to ask dad anyway.

Growing up, my sister and I constantly defied the notion that girls were only half-hearted baseball fans. We argued with boys wearing Philadelphia Phillies caps right in the parking lot of their stadium and would even call our dad’s office before every Mets game to ask about changes in the starting lineup. We collected T-shirts, bobbleheads, and again, baseball cards.

Alana Schreiber (left) attends a New York Mets spring training game in Florida in 2006, with her father Jay and sister Julie. 

And yet even as the diehard baseball fan that I was and continue to be—the kind of fan that often keeps a box score even when I’m just watching
the game on TV—I wasn’t looking forward to the abbreviated season set to start this week. With only 60 games scheduled, instead of 162, and with the ongoing danger that players, coaches and managers will end up sick with COVID-19, there seems to be too much risk involved and not enough return.

At the same time, a 60-game season in which each game counts for 2.7 times as much as it normally does seems like a disturbing distortion. And winning a championship title for playing 37 percent of a normal season’s games also seems kind of pathetic. Indeed, a baseball season without ample time for team slumps, hot streaks, and inevitable summer doldrums seems inherently “un-baseball.”

But then I talked to Bob Costas, the legendary sports broadcaster most famous for covering 11 Olympic games for NBC, and Tyler Kepner, the esteemed baseball writer and columnist for The New York Times. Rather than lament the loss of a normal season, they both seemed excited for baseball to resume, with all of its new quirks.

 

Tyler Kepner, sportswriter for the New York Times 

 

“This is the best we can do under the circumstances, but everyone will understand that,” Costas assured me. “Even though it will be very strange, people will watch.”

Kepner echoed the sentiment. “We have no choice but to kind of accept it for what it is,” he said. “This is a memorable season and a different season, but the important thing is just to understand it in context. Sports are supposed to be fun. It’s better than nothing. Something better than nothing.”

And they’re right. Or at least, they convinced me. This season won’t be the baseball of my childhood, the baseball that loyal fans are accustomed to, but maybe now is not the time for arguments over the integrity of the sport. Yes, this season will be shorter and different, but it will also be unusual, memorable and maybe, just maybe, a welcome distraction for a country in which so much now seems divisive and dangerous.

Baseball, of course, isn’t the only sport trying to play games amid a pandemic. What sets it apart, and makes its task more difficult, is that other sports entities like basketball’s NBA and soccer’s English Premier League, are simply trying to finish off seasons that were well under way when the virus struck. Major League Baseball, in contrast, was still on deck—just a month into spring training.

 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr.

 

Making the situation even more difficult for baseball is the fact that the commissioner, Rob Manfred Jr., and the players union couldn’t agree on how to proceed. When Manfred, who represents the team’s owners, proposed an 80-game season starting on July 4, the players countered with 114. When Manfred shortened his proposal to 60 games, the players wanted 70. After weeks at a stalemate, Manfred simply imposed a 60-game season set to start on July 23. Because players’ salaries are dependent on how many games they actually play, a 60-game season means they make a lot less money. With an imposed season there’s not that much the players can do though, except for maybe have their union file grievances.

Meanwhile, there’s a new set of rules. The MLB, in coordination with doctors appointed by the league and players union, and with the oversight of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratories in Salt Lake City, issued a new set of regulations they believe will help mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19—all of which is detailed in a new 113-page rule book.

Some of the rules affect play. Like having a designated hitter in both the American and National League as opposed to just the former, starting with a runner on second base in extra innings, and requiring each pitcher to pitch to at least three batters, or finish an inning. These revisions, while seemingly not COVID-19 related, are in fact, in place to attempt to reduce contact between players by speeding games along.

But some of the new rules are a bit fussier. Despite criticism from some health experts, players won’t be required to wear masks on the field. Nonplayer personnel, however, must wear masks in the dugout and bullpen at all times. Pitchers must keep wet rags in their pockets to stop them from licking their fingers while on the mound, no public transportation to the stadiums is allowed for staff and players, and no shared food spreads, no saunas, no fighting, no tobacco-chewing, and no sunflower seed-spitting. Whether or not these rules will be effective in stopping the spread of the virus, however, waits to be seen.

“The more you know, the less sure you are,” Costas says of players and doctors alike who are grappling with all the changes. “All we can do is follow the best guesses, but even the experts—true experts—are only offering educated guesses.”

Any thought of having all 30 teams regroup in their spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona to prepare for the season was abandoned when the virus surged in both of those states. Instead, each team is now training in its regular stadium: East Coast, West Coast and every state in between.

Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before the team’s home opener on July 23. 

 

Even with these precautions, dozens of players and team staffers have already tested positive for the virus. According to the most recent reports, there are at least 70 positive cases across the league. Juan Soto, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, was added to the sick list hours before the season was set to begin on July 23.  He needs two negative test results before returning to the field. Under MLB’s COVID-19 plan, all players must be tested every other day, with results delivered within 48 hours.

With those troubling numbers, it’s unsurprising that a number of players have decided they want to skip the season entirely. While the players’ union might have been unsuccessful in getting a longer season, it was able to convince the MLB to allow any player to “opt out” of the 2020 season without violating his contract. Only those players who have health conditions that might make them more susceptible to contracting the virus will still receive pay.

 

 

(Top left) Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nations (Top right) David Price of the Los Angeles Dodgers (Bottom left) Felix Hernandez of the Atlanta Braves (Bottom right) Buster Posey of the the San Francisco Giants 

 

Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who helped his team win the World Series for the first time in franchise history last fall, was among the first to announce he wouldn’t be returning. Not long after, David Price of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Felix Hernandez of the Atlanta Braves and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants also announced their choice to opt out. Like Zimmerman, they are all prominent players.

For Posey, who recently adopted twins born prematurely and with weakened immune systems, opting out seemed like the practical, responsible thing to do. After 11 years as an elite catcher, and having earned $21.9 million from his 2019 season alone, he can easily afford to skip a year. According to The Detroit News, Posey said that while “from a baseball standpoint, it was a tough decision” not to play, from a family standpoint “it was relatively easy.”

Kepner applauds him for prioritizing the health of his newborns over another year on the field. “I think it’s a great message to send: if you can afford it financially, family is more important.”

But many other players don’t have the same financial security. Gene Orza, who spent 26 years as a powerful executive in the players’ union, told the New York Times, “If you’re a player who’s made $30 million a year for the last three years, your ability to say ‘I’m not playing’ is different from the guy who’s been struggling for the last three years, is ready to play now in the big show, has debt coming out of his ears and who needs to show his talent and get rewarded.”

 

Gene Orza, former chief operations officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association

 

Then there’s the case of someone like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, an All-Star center fielder whose wife his expecting the couple’s first child in August. During the first week of basic training, Trout told multiple news outlets that he felt uncomfortable playing during a pandemic. Unlike Posey, whose best years might be behind him, Trout is in his prime. And as a three-time American League MVP who is widely regarded as one of the most talented athletes in the MLB today, sitting out this season might affect his image.

Still, despite his concerns, Trout has been showing up to recent Angels practices. Unlike many of his teammates, however, he’s wearing a mask.

“Trout is in a difficult spot for sure,” says Kepner. “As the best player in baseball there’s a responsibility that goes with that. Maybe he feels like he has to play because of his status.” Yet, Kepner was quick to acknowledge that, should Trout choose to opt out, the decision would likely be understood and respected by his fans and teammates.

 

  

(Left) Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels (Right) Pete Alonso of the New York Mets

 

But for every player on the fence there’s another dying to get back on the field. Pete Alonso, the slugging first baseman of the New York Mets and the 2019 National League Rookie of the Year, recently announced at a press conference that, despite the risks, he feels passionately about starting the season and giving fans across the country something to forward to. “I’m geeked up to play,” he said.

There’s another factor to consider in all this: a very short season could create a fluky path to glory for some teams that might otherwise have no shot at the title. This late-July season start comes at a time when trades are normally finalized and winning teams gear up for the playoffs—while losing teams test out their minor leaguers in a sort of extended  “tryout.” But this year there’s just a mad dash from Game 1 to October. Over the course of a long 162-game grind, there’s virtually no way for a team that isn’t very good to somehow sneak into the playoffs. But with a 60-game season, who knows what will happen?

“Every team has a chance,” Kepner believes. “I love the perspective of thinking of this season as it’s a week before the trade deadline and every team is tied for the playoffs.” Citing struggling clubs like the Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, Kepner says that “the chances of a statistical outlier with one of these teams has to be greater than ever, because there’s just a smaller sample of games.”

This abbreviated 2020 season does have some precedent. In 1981, for example, a players’ strike over free-agent compensation stopped the season in its tracks from June 12 through July 31. When play resumed, baseball adopted an unconventional plan to split the season in two halves, pre- and post-strike. The winning team in each division in each half of the season then advanced to an extended postseason in which teams faced off in a best-of-five series leading up to the World Series.

Although there were no real upsets that year, there were some oddities. The Cincinnati Reds, despite having the best overall record in baseball that year, failed to qualify for the playoffs after coming in second in their division in both halves. Similarly, the St. Louis Cardinals, who had the second-best record in the National League that year, also failed to qualify, for the same reason. The New York Yankees on the other hand, who came in sixth out of seven teams in their division in the second half of the season, nevertheless made it all the way to the World Series thanks to their first-place position during the first half of the season. They ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games, greatly angering their combustible owner George Steinbrenner. (But that’s a whole other story).

Also worth noting is that every team in 1981 did play more than 100 games, or just about two-thirds of a regular season. That made 1981 seem pretty legitimate from the viewpoint of everyone involved, including the sport’s fans. Whether or not this year’s 60-game season will be taken seriously remains in question.

“Will it be legitimate? I don’t know,” Kepner muses. “I think it’ll just be viewed in the context of this crazy year. I do know that whichever team wins will have overcome a different set of challenges than any other team ever has.”

As for Costas, he acknowledged the risks in playing, but also pointed out that not playing has its own inherent set of concerns. “If they weren’t able to play again until the spring of 2021 they would have gone a year and a half off the radar without any meaningful games,” he told me.

Although Costas admits the idea of baseball fading from the American sports landscape is highly unlikely, he warns that 18 months off the grid would be a “big hit” for the sport—a disaster both financially and culturally.

“Everyone will recognize it’s not right to compare this season to the great performances of the past,” he concedes. “But still, somebody is going to be named the MVP, somebody is going to be named the Cy Young Award winner, and somebody will lead the league in hitting and home runs.” In other words, it will still be baseball.

Costas also says that the likelihood of all 60 scheduled games actually being played by every team is still up in the air because of the ongoing pandemic. “We have no certainty, we just have our fingers crossed,’’ he says. “All they can do is what they’re doing.” He believes that as long as teams follow “best possible medical advice, best possible protocols, and hope for a dash of good luck,” a 2020 baseball season, with all its peculiarities and challenges, is unequivocally “worth a try.”

 

Alana Schreiber with other New York Mets fans at Citi Field, watching pitchers warm up in the bullpen before a July 2019 game. Photo courtesy Ruthie Darling. 

 

Talking with Costas and Kepner got me to re-evaluate my original concerns about a shortened season. I originally figured that fans nostalgic for the old ways of play would likely feel thrown off by the new set of rules, and those with only a half-hearted burgeoning interest in the sport would be unlikely to get hooked with only 60 games. But viewing the season in the context of everything that’s happened this year, and hoping for a streak of fortune to carry baseball all the way to October, is perhaps exactly what fans and players alike need to do.

And if you really love baseball, like me, why should we abandon it now? What the sport lacks in rapid-fire moments, it makes up for in prolonged suspense, late-game rallies, and a sense of unpredictability, with no clock to dictate an ending like it does in the NFL or NBA.  Sure, this shortened season won’t allow for the kind of forgiveness of sloppiness we give players during a long summer, or foster time for players to grow, but in a year that’s already unprecedented in so many ways, why not lean in?

In my conversations with Kepner and Costas, they reminded me that, yes, this season will be odd and quirky, but in a sport already filled with oddities and quirks, perhaps starting an unusual, abbreviated season in late July isn’t inherently “un-baseball,” but the most baseball thing of all.

And, of course, what better way to commemorate this season than with a new set of baseball cards? In fact, I just went to the Topps website, and ordered a fresh pack. So ready or not, batter up.

 

Alana Schreiber can be reached at arschreiber11@gmail.com

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