The False Hope of Opening Day Feels Very Real
They are stacking the dead in a refrigerated truck outside a Queens hospital where 13 people lost their lives yesterday to the coronavirus. The worst is yet to come. This is a nightmare with an indeterminate end. And New York City, as the canary in the coal mine, is just the beginning. The fight there will become the fight in hamlets and villages from sea to sea. We are a nation caught looking and the course to normalcy is a marathon, not a sprint.
To think that they'll play baseball games a few miles away in Flushing in a few weeks is absurd. It does not compute. The idea of our national pastime as the Great Distractor is a shiny object of no substance. A nice, rosy thought to steal before sighing and facing each day that bleeds into the next.
Rob Manfred, appearing on SportsCenter last night, was mostly sober and clear-minded about the challenges ahead. He, like everyone else, does not have the answers or a crystal ball to glimpse into a brighter future. He knows the season could very well never begin. At the same time Manfred told Scott Van Pelt that his “optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up.”
Today is Opening Day, yet nothing is opening. And perhaps it's natural for fans to harbor some type of hope on what is often the most hopeful date on the sporting calendar. Even teams expected to struggle start fresh every March with the dream something unpredictable could happen. Hope is surely a good thing. False hope, though, can be insidious.
It hurts to give voice to reality in dire times. But it's staring everyone in the face, no matter how much they want to avoid eye contact. And the truth is that the world of May and June will look different in both ways we can anticipate and those impossible to predict.
In a press conference earlier this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested coronavirus could linger in the city for nine months, potentially infecting 80 percent of the population. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti expects stay-at-home orders to extend through at least May. With urban centers serving as the blueprint for the suburban and rural portions that will see their trying times further down the road, how does anyone look at things with a sober mind and believe it will be possible to hold sporting events in six or eight weeks?
Let's run through a few of the logistical hurdles for baseball to overcome.
First and most importantly, the coronavirus is not going to magically disappear even if complete lockdown becomes the norm, which it obviously won't. Flattening the curve is about reducing the crush on medical infrastructure, which in turn elongates the exposure period. People, including those associated with baseball teams, will still be contracting it whenever sports wisely or unwisely return.
If the plan is to test every player, umpire, manager, and team employee before each and every game, it'll be both a tremendous misuse of resources and a damning indictment of misplaced priorities. What happens when a star outfielder comes up positive? Do you need to quarantine his entire roster? That puts everything back to square one.
Leapfrogging health and safety concerns for business ones is a strategy being pushed now, mostly at the whisper level. It will soon crescendo into a loud roar. It's worth asking if Major League Baseball has the capacity to get 100 percent, or even 90 percent buy-in from its players. It's extremely realistic that a significant portion of ballplayers will choose to remain in some form of quarantine instead of flying around the country risking exposure.
Then there's the moral imperative placed on television partners and media outlets who must decide if they want to put employees in harm's way. Just this morning we are learning that a freelance cameraman who worked the Jazz-Pistons game before Rudy Gobert's positive test is in a medically-induced coma. Everyone in the supply and demand chain will undoubtably grow more desperate. The event horizon for poor decision-making is limitless.
Finally, consider what the public's desire for baseball is today and what it will be on, say, May 26. Think of the avalanche of real-world horrors that could bury something so trivial. Nearly 3.3 million people had to file for unemployment benefits this week. Those jobless in the country could approach 30 percent, according to multiple economists.
Baseball and other sports have always been a diversion. Unimportant things that can thankfully mean everything. Whenever it and they come back, there will be welcome arms waiting. But they won't heal us.
There's been a misguided trend throughout this whole endeavor in comparing a global pandemic to the attacks of 9/11. Then, we had a common enemy with a face. Now, we have an invisible one. Then, we had made-for-television disaster that sunk hearts replay after replay. Now, we only have reports from behind closed doors. Then, baseball returned after 10 days and served as a cathartic healer. Now ... well, who knows? It may be June. It may be 2021.
Nothing can happen, of course, until there's a concerted national effort to contain the virus, slow the spread, and observe a marked decline in cases. We've only recently begun social distancing and policies are a patchwork system decided by local authorities. We're only on Opening Day of the effort, not near the All-Star break or stretch run as some non-serious people would have you believe.
Take a look at the challenges. Twenty percent of MLB teams play in either New York or California. There's one in hard-hit Seattle. And these are the places where concentrated efforts are being made to contain the pandemic. Think of Miami, where the state's governor has shown no interest in enacting any type of mitigation efforts. How long until things get under control there? Five months? More?
Nothing would make me happier than to look back at these thoughts and be embarrassed. Realizing the pollyanna-ish crowd was right all along would mean society is in a much better place than I fear it's headed. But it is important to parse the difference between real and false hope. One road leads to cleansing. The other to even more hurt.
No one is playing ball on this bizarre Opening Day as we embark on the longest season of our lives. We may need to get used to it.