These players are our best hope for American sports.
The assumption that the NBA bubble and the Major League Baseball season cannot succeed in the midst of a pandemic seems presumptively pessimistic. It will take focus and luck, but even as COVID-19 spikes around the United States, this can work. This should work. Professional athletes are the best of us.
And they will police each other.
“I, personally, will keep my eyes out, see if I can help anyone or encourage anyone -- at least on our team -- [to] follow the protocols,” said Al Horford, the most respected Sixer.
Granted, enforcing NBA standards for a 15-man roster in the Disney World bubble will be much easier than wrangling a 30-man traveling party in Tampa, Miami, and New York.
“We’re going to have to be really stern and hold each other accountable to that,” said Andrew McCutchen, the most respected Phillie.
McCutchen is in his 12th season, but manager Joe Girardi says rookies should chastise veterans if the vets forget.
“I would tell a younger player, if an older veteran guy’s not following protocol, get on him,” Girardi said. “I’m giving you the right to get on him, because you’re protecting the rest of us.”
Is protection in baseball so very important? Yes, baseball games happen outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread to a competitor. But players actually spend most of their time indoors with teammates, where the virus can spread quickly. Social distancing in weight rooms, training rooms, cafeterias, and in transit have presented the greatest risks.
“We like that camaraderie in the clubhouse. In the dugout,” said McCutchen, who has already seen players drop their guard during the Phillies’ intrasquad games. “A lot of times we’ll start out spaced out, but as the game goes on we start getting closer and closer together, having conversations, and talking. And then we have to have that reminder: ‘Hey guys, I know this is great, but let’s do our best to stay within the protocol.' "
They are committed to the protocol. Last Monday, after pitching live batting practice, Zach Eflin iced his arm, showered, dressed, then returned to the field to talk to catcher Andrew Knapp. Players are not required to wear masks on the field. Eflin wore one anyway. Why bother?
“Yeah, I just don’t want to get anybody else sick if I get sick,” Eflin said. “If we’re going to get this season in, I think it’s going to be real important to do this. To get used to it. I’d rather go ahead and make it a habit now. It’s going to be a really important thing throughout the league for us to all wear.”
Eflin said the Phillies wear masks everywhere, even on the buses to FDR Park where pitchers practice fielding drills -- socially distanced, of course. Eflin spoke Sunday via a Zoom interview, so he was alone in the manager’s office. He wore his mask anyway.
Eflin doesn’t wear a mask on the field, but infielders Didi Gregorius, Jean Segura, Ronald Torreyes all do, as does outfielder Nick Williams. So does Scott Kingery, who joined the team Saturday after a monthlong bout with COVID-19.
After a few sputters the first week, the major-league testing and protocols appear to be working, and the players have bought in. Granted, it’s early. We’ve all witnessed corona fatigue and COVID rage, a disorder in which seemingly rational people angrily unmask themselves for what they truly are. Elite athletes are better than this. It’s how they become elite.
They eat, drink, practice, and sleep with Spartan discipline. They can cut out gluten, fat, and sugar, but they can’t avoid strip clubs? They don’t smoke (cigarettes), and they rarely drink to excess, but with their seasons, their careers, and maybe their lives on the line, they can’t be trusted to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay out of bars?
Trout plays for the Angels. Not all of his teammates wear masks on the field, but they have pledged to play it safe this season.
The rest of baseball is listening. As of Sunday night, only 17 of 7,401 tests taken after summer training began last week came back positive, and just 13 of those were players. The positive tests came from 10 clubs, which sounds ominous when considering the potential for spread.
But that also means, almost two weeks after the restart, 20 teams had no new positive tests. It also means that players are safer and smarter now that they’ve reconvened, since 58 players tested positive when they reported to camp. The first week saw several glitches and mistakes, but, for the moment, baseball’s system seems to be working.
So does the NBA’s, even though Embiid says he thinks NBA players will break quarantine and ignore protocols. “I don’t trust those other guys,” he said.
Then again, Embiid generally says what will attract the most attention, then pulls stunts like he did when he boarded the team plane for Florida.
To be fair, the Sunshine State became the hottest coronavirus hot spot in American history, but that wasn’t true inside the NBA bubble, where none of the 76ers or their support staff has tested positive.
Inside that bubble, everyone wakes up to a temperature check and a questionnaire, and both are logged on their phone. Players are urged to wear wristbands that monitor their location and rings that monitor their temperature. They are required to wear masks when not playing, eating, or cavorting outside, and they are forbidden from entering any hotel room other than their own. There, as with Major League Baseball, players are tested every other day.
Simple rules, and easy to follow for a workforce accustomed to doing precisely what it’s told. It is the distillation of the “team” concept, said Sixers coach Brett Brown.
“Doing the things you’ve got to do to keep the teammates safe, to keep the bubble safe, to keep the league safe,” Brown said. “I mean, there really is no greater responsibility that any of us have, if we’re to pull off what we’re here to pull off.”
“We’re taking it very seriously,” Eflin said. “We want to play baseball. We don’t want a mask to get in the way of that. If we don’t wear a mask, and it takes over our team, then that’s our fault.”
“As men,” Horford said, “we all have to make sure that we’re doing our part.”
That’s how they win games.