Three weeks ago, as players and coaches streamed into ballparks across the country for “summer camp” — a play on words that never fit with the mood of the moment — a longtime baseball executive brought a dose of perspective to the proceedings.
“I have no idea,” he said, “how this is all going to play out.”
That caveat still applies.
Because when Phillies (re-)opening-day starter Aaron Nola uncorks his first pitch at 7:05 p.m. Friday, dozens of major-league players will be on the COVID-19 injured list, the Toronto Blue Jays won’t have a home, spitting and high-fiving will be prohibited, coaches in the dugouts and on the field will cover their faces with masks, and fans will have been replaced by cardboard cutouts and artificial crowd noise. Within this dystopia, a 60-game sprint to October — played according to 101 pages of protocols — still has a decidedly house-of-cards feel to it.
But baseball is back, the Phillies' 2020 season is upon us, and that, by itself, is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
“It is,” Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said Wednesday. “It’s not necessarily a huge victory, but it’s nice. If we can just stay diligent and stay on top of everything that we have thus far, I think we’re all confident that we can finish the season.”
So much can still go so wrong. Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, a sobering reminder that the virus is neither receding any time soon nor discriminating based on players’ talent or importance to their team. How many other All-Stars will get infected? Could an outbreak within one team scuttle the season for the other 29?
Those concerns are as valid today as they were three weeks ago, especially now that 30 teams are bracing for road trips that will involve air travel and hotel stays.
But the fact that Major League Baseball has made it this far — through the delays in processing results from the intake screenings at the outset of camps and the implementation of every-other-day COVID-19 testing, and with the rate of positives actually decreasing as players spend more time together — is enough to spark greater hope that maybe this can actually get pulled off after all.
"When we came here approximately three weeks ago, none of us were sure if we were going to be able to get to this day," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "I think the fact that we have is a credit to everyone in Major League Baseball and the efforts that everyone has put in to get to this point. Now that we're at this point, let's not mess it up."
Not quite as romantic as "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," but perfectly appropriate as a slogan for pandemic baseball.
If the last three weeks proved anything, though, it's that players aren't taking unnecessary risks.
According to testing data that MLB released last Friday, 23 of the first 17,949 samples collected during the alternate-day “monitoring” period were positive, a 0.1% rate. That’s down from the initial intake-screening phase, in which 70 of 3,752 samples came back positive (1.9%). It’s also notable that 10 teams have been training in Florida, Texas, Arizona, or California, states that have reported significant spikes in new cases.
“I kind of view testing as the final exam that tells you if you’ve been doing everything else correctly,” MLB medical director Gary Green said this week via Zoom in a roundtable discussion with Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania about baseball’s return. The decrease in positives “tells me that the players are taking this all very seriously and conducting themselves in a safe manner.”
That seems to be particularly true for the Phillies.
Maybe they were scared by the outbreak last month at their spring-training site in Florida, where six players and five staff tested positive despite taking so many precautions at the facility that general manager Matt Klentak believed the environment was "airtight." Or maybe they're reminded of the threat of COVID-19 each time they see shortstop Didi Gregorius, who wears a mask on the field because of a chronic kidney disorder that classifies him as "high risk" for the virus.
“He’s choosing to wear a mask at all times,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “I think it’s our duty as teammates to respect that and also to do the same thing. As a team, we’ve mandated that, unless you’re on the field and outside, you should be wearing a mask at all times.”
Not that difficult, right?
“We might have thought that it was going to be more difficult than it actually is,” Arrieta said. “Not getting to go to restaurants or public places seemed like it was going to be a big deal. It’s really not. Guys are actually learning how to cook, I believe.”
If anything, refraining from high-fives, bro-hugs, and other customary in-game reflexes has been the hard part, Arrieta said. It’ll only get more challenging now that the stakes will be raised in games that count.
But the coronavirus won’t stop just because the baseball season has started. The discipline and vigilance of the last three weeks will only need to be heightened over the next two months if MLB has any hope of reaching the finish line.
At last, though, there might be reason for hope.
“I have been so impressed by the discipline and the dedication of our players and our staff the last three weeks,” Klentak said. “These guys have taken it incredibly seriously, and fortunately as a byproduct of that, we have not had any additional cases in the last few weeks. The threat is real. The risk is very real. We know that. But I am really proud of our guys for what they’ve been able to accomplish. If everybody handles it [during the season] with the same level of discipline that they’ve handled the last three weeks, I’m pretty confident that this is going to work.”
Let that wash over you as the Phillies take the field Friday night.