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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

If Dr. Anthony Fauci can work sports' return into his plan for saving country, I'm eager to listen

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington.  Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

I hang on every word Dr. Anthony Fauci says these days. These are scary, uncertain times in the age of COVID-19, and someone with his vast medical expertise is a trusted voice, a reliable compass when you’re feeling this adrift.

So when Fauci suggested Wednesday that staging sports events could be possible at some point in the coming months, I was ready to embrace those words, too.

This was not a commissioner or mayor or governor or president speaking. Fauci is the nation’s top doc on infectious diseases, presumably with no skin in the game other than solving this U.S. health crisis. If he envisions a path toward opening ballparks again, even minus the fans, that grabs our attention.

“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci said on “Good Luck America,” an interview series from Snapchat. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put them in big hotels wherever you want to play. Keep them very well-surveilled and have them tested, like every week, and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family and just let them play the season out.”

We all seized on Fauci’s optimism, because we’ve been scraping for any morsel of positive news among the awful stats provided by the daily coronavirus scorecard. But he didn’t supply any specific timeline or additional details of how such a plan might work. And in MLB’s case, Fauci didn’t get into the rigors of sequestering all 30 teams (potentially more than 1,500 staff and players) for up to five months in Arizona, which seems like baseball’s best shot at salvaging part of the 2020 season.

What Fauci described was a strategy, and a broader framework of what could be accomplished as we work to fully contain the COVID-19 spread. But as we sit confined to our homes here on April 15, this country doesn’t yet have the procedures in place to start playing games again.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. But let’s use South Korea as an example, only because the KBO is in the midst of spring training, has scheduled a six-game exhibition series to begin next week and is on track to have Opening Day in early May.

So why does South Korea already have baseball while the U.S. isn’t close? It’s not a complicated answer. Both nations reported their first COVID-19 cases on Jan. 21, but South Korea quickly ramped up to widespread, readily-available testing and an aggressive monitoring system. Body temperature scans are at the entrances to most buildings, including stadiums.

That’s how businesses and sports leagues get opened up again. There are no shortcuts. And skipping any of these basic safeguards could have catastrophic results, such as players or older staff coming down with the virus, with a dangerous prognosis.

Obviously, Fauci understands these risks, regardless of how badly the Brooklyn-born Yankees fan wants to see baseball again. So we’ll assume that he’s speaking about a hypothetical situation, the day when most everybody in the U.S. can be tested. Otherwise, it would be unconscionable to think that professional athletes would move to the front of the line for “weekly” tests before health-care workers and first responders have the chance to get screened even once.

Because that’s where we are now. We’re still playing catch-up with limited resources, but hopefully that won’t be for too much longer. Maybe advances in testing, as well as screening for COVID-19 antibodies, which MLB is cooperating with for a study, will get us up to the level Fauci is referring to.

We can’t have sports again without doing so. As eager as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is to host an MLB season, he didn’t dive headfirst into the shallow end of the pool when talking about the scenario. Ducey mentioned that the state has the hotels and facilities, but he spoke of moving forward only  “at the time it would be appropriate for public health.”

That’s the bottom line. It’s not about the 100-degree heat, or the hotel quarantine, or families being separated for five months, as big as those obstacles may be. The overriding concern is preventing more tragedy caused by the coronavirus, and sports leagues can’t operate independent of that mission statement.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred  repeatedly has tried to hammer this home since the Phoenix gambit first leaked a week ago. On Tuesday, Manfred stressed the distinction between these discussed “ideas” and what would be considered actual “plans,” which remain further away.

As Fauci mentioned, it’s feasible that we’ll get there — minus spectators, of course. But let’s not confuse that with a guarantee or some kind of mandate that it has to happen. We all want sports back, and I’m eager to listen to any strategy that could lead us there. If Fauci can work that into his plan for saving the country, all the better.

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