Sure, none of that is certain, but Monday morning’s news that at least 14 members of the Miami Marlins and their staff have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in recent days was a Category 5 covid-19 hurricane alert. You couldn’t have a worse MLB start or a grimmer predictor for other games.
With lots of inherent social distancing, baseball was supposed to be the easiest major American team sport to resume, just as leagues in Japan and South Korea have functioned smoothly for months. But MLB couldn’t go even a week without the serious prospect that its 60-game season should be canceled.
“Hey, I’m going to be honest with you: I’m scared. I really am,” said Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, 55, who has a heart condition.
Why is MLB creating a situation where Dusty Baker, 71, the survivor of multiple life-threatening conditions in the past 15 years, manages Houston every day while Texas is a national coronavirus hot spot?
Martinez added that before long his team may see more players “opt out,” as Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross already have. Once the defections start, the cascade won’t stop until the sport must call a halt.
“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” tweeted Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander David Price, who passed on $11.8 million by opting out of this partial season. “Remember when [Commissioner Rob] Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”
Underneath all the discussions and elaborate plans to reopen various sports — MLB, the NBA and NHL now, and the NFL and college football by the end of next month — has been one naive assumption: If the virus hit a team, it would infect one or two players. Maybe three. But the sense was things still would be manageable. You could still field a team.
When did this become the highest of all human goals?
The danger and the damage would not be “too bad.” In this, we see Americans’ national tendency toward willful pandemic ignorance being played out on a small, crystal-clear stage so everyone can get the message.
For months, we have watched healthy people, mostly young, swarm into bars or hit the beaches with an apparent sense that community spread was a fiction or not something that applied to them. Maybe, the fantasy went, one person in the wrong bar would get the virus.
Now we learn differently. Now we see the truth.
Over a dozen Marlins and counting.
The immediate consequences of the Marlins’ outbreak were the postponements of their home opener against the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies’ home game against the New York Yankees, who would have been occupying the clubhouse those Marlins just showered and dressed in Sunday.
The wider effect: Back to normal, or even semi-normal, in sports was shattered just days after being reintroduced.
What does this mean?
Some events have ambiguous consequences. We won’t know their impact for some time. But in rare cases, one event may have enormous impact, just as the positive virus test for the NBA’s Rudy Gobert in mid-March resulted in the shutdown of every major sport within 48 hours.
This is such a moment — but perhaps bigger.
Why are we here? The answer is simple yet inexplicably unacknowledged in wide swaths of this country: The pandemic is not under control until you stop it, suppress it, dominate it and crush the curve.
Though many other countries have done it, America has not come within a million miles of that outcome.
As I pointed out in a column last week, when a league says, Given what we are seeing with covid-19 hitting our teams, maybe we should cancel the season, the correct response is “get rid of the word ‘maybe.’ ”
The entire American experience of this pandemic has been: Don’t embolden the virus by acknowledging its threat. Try to outrun it, hide from it, say it’s not so bad and will go away.
That just breeds a disaster, and now that disaster has hit MLB just days into its season. The Cincinnati Reds also have multiple positive tests. The Atlanta Braves have been without two catchers who have symptoms, though no positive tests. Nationals star Juan Soto is inactive after a positive test.
Do we need a longer list?
You can’t be much healthier, as a group, than a pro baseball team. You can’t be much better protected or tested more often than an MLB team. The Marlins are close to the safest possible case. And now, less than a week into their season, at least half of the team has the coronavirus!
That is what is meant by “community spread.” That is what is meant by an “outbreak” in an epidemic. All of us have worried that one or two players — or people in the MLB community — would have bad outcomes from the virus if a 60-game season was played. Time to blow up that assumption. If half of the Marlins team can test positive within a few days, then the scale of danger to health — the number of people who may get sick and the severity of the damage they may suffer, including prime-of-life pro athletes — just shot through the ceiling.
Our assumptions, while well-intentioned, have been blown to pieces. And in short order, so will the season of one, or perhaps several, of our sports.
The Marlins are just the latest — but one of the most vivid — illustrations of what America is facing. And how little we are willing to take seriously the true measure of our fearsome enemy.