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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Baseball's most improbable Opening Day arrives with excitement and concern

Members of the Yankees stand on the field

Members of the Yankees stand on the field wearing face masks during Spring Training at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Marco Mendicino isn’t a pitcher, outfielder or manager. Nor does he have any affiliation with baseball.

And yet Mendicino, Canada’s immigration minister, delivered one of the most ominous messages about the upcoming 60-game season, a schedule dramatically chopped by the coronavirus pandemic.

As “summer camp” — another term born of this new normal — entered its final week in the countdown to the most improbable Opening Day in the sport’s history, Mendicino revealed that the Blue Jays essentially were banned from playing in their own country. Toronto’s Rogers Centre was off limits, because as soon as the Jays ventured south into the most virus-invested country on the planet, they would not be allowed to return.

“The Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high,” Mendicino said in a statement. “Based on the best available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular-season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety.”

That is the billion-dollar question as everyone grapples with the mixed emotions currently swirling around the 2020 season.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that baseball actually made it this far after a four-month shutdown, a bitter five-week labor battle and the arduous health protocols that require a 108-page manual to follow.

Consider this: When spring training abruptly stopped on March 12, the United States had 1,323 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 38 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As of Monday, a little more than 72 hours before the Yankees are to open the regular season against the defending champion Nationals, the U.S. was reporting 3.7 million cases, with a death total that had climbed past 140,000.

By now, most of us are painfully aware of these numbers. They are as familiar as Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young Award count (two) or Mike Trout’s collection of MVP trophies (three). Unfortunately, there is another statistic haunting this season, and that’s the number of fans that will be allowed into ballparks: zero.

The lack of attendance-driven revenue was the focal point of the labor war between owners and players that nearly scuttled the restart negotiations and wiped out this season before it even had a chance to begin. Those acrimonious talks also provided a disturbing preview into what potentially awaits baseball after the 2021 season, when the CBA expires, and this broken relationship could result in the sport’s first work stoppage since 1994.

But that’s a problem for another day. Baseball has enough hurdles to clear at the moment, and the omnipresent threat of the coronavirus puts each night’s game in jeopardy, never mind the next week or month.

Spitting may be outlawed on the field — along with sunflower seeds, tobacco and high-fives — but it’s a mandatory part of the protocols to combat the virus. Every two days, players are required to fill a test tube with saliva, which is then shipped to MLB’s own private lab in Salt Lake City to be processed.

So far, the efforts appear to be working as planned. While 80 players have tested positive since late June, the frequency of those positives has steadily declined with each screening round, dropping to 0.05% (including staffers) when the latest results were released on July 17.  

In addition, 13 players have opted out of this season, including David Price, Ryan Zimmerman, Felix Hernandez and Ian Desmond.

It stands to reason that more players eventually could go the opt-out route, possibly because of the increased risk of traveling — or maybe even after they reach the number of games needed to qualify for free agency this offseason.

The greater fear, however, is the virus sneaking through MLB’s meticulously constructed firewall, either to spark a debilitating outbreak that cripples a team or, even worse, makes a player or club employee critically ill.

We got a glimpse of both scenarios in the past month. MLB was forced to close all of its spring training sites in Arizona and Florida after outbreaks flared up, particularly at the Phillies’ complex in Clearwater. There also was the case of the Braves’ Freddie Freeman, whose fever spiked to 104.5 during his bout with the virus, prompting him to pray for his life. While the overwhelming majority of players are likely to recover from the virus, Freeman’s experience was scary enough to convince teammate Nick Markakis to bow out after a phone conversation.

“It’s very serious,” Freeman, 30, told reporters upon last week’s return to the Braves. Despite being extremely careful, he wound up infected anyway. “It still somehow got to me,” he said.

Those are chilling words for baseball, and a cautionary tale for all of us as we look forward to this season with guarded optimism.

There is reason to be excited. We’ve already grown accustomed to seeing players such as Clint Frazier and Didi Gregorius wearing masks on the field, fake crowd noise in empty stadiums and cardboard cutouts instead of fans. It’s not so bad.

What would be terrible, however, is a tragic end to this season. And based on this country’s ongoing struggle to contain the virus, the odds are stacked against baseball making it all the way through October to crown a World Series champion.

“I really do think whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win,” Astros first-year general manager James Click said. “It’s impossible to state how that can devastate a team, and that’s why we have to be so vigilant about it.”

Baseball is back. Wear a mask.

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