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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Skepticism exists among players as MLB tries to overcome obstacles for 60-game season

Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said he's likely to

Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said he's likely to play this season, but if he doesn't feel safe, he will opt out.  Credit: ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto/ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After a weekend of watching the Mets and Yankees run through baseball-related activities for the first time since COVID-19 shut down the sport in mid-March, my initial reaction was to think that maybe playing a season could be possible.

Also, the intake screening process yielded a positive rate of only 1.2% (38 of 3,185 people tested). By comparison, New York state just had a seven-day average that hovered around 1%.

Players kept their distance during workouts. Staffers wore masks. As a whole, the Mets and Yankees were pleased by their team’s efforts, which apparently did a good job following MLB’s health and safety protocols.

Beneath the surface, however, many inside baseball remain skeptical. And around the league, this high-profile experiment is not proceeding quite as smoothly as the workouts here in New York.

The Nationals’ Sean Doolittle, one of the more sensible voices on the subject, griped to reporters Sunday about not receiving the PPEs they were promised and not getting his results from Friday’s testing.

“There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100% comfortable with where things are right now,” Doolittle told The Washington Post. “That’s kind of where I am. I think I’m planning on playing. But if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things we have to worry about and kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out.”

Doolittle isn’t alone. As of Sunday, seven players had decided to sit out the 2020 season, the most recent being David Price, who was traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers in the offseason. Expect there to be more.

As idyllic as the term “summer camp” sounds for this spring training 2.0, it’s really a much darker concept, with players having to consider life-or-death choices along with getting into game shape.

As Doolittle alluded to, it’s a process that will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis. Just because players showed up this weekend doesn’t mean they’re permanently on board through the July 23 opener.

“There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty with where things are right now,” Brett Gardner said Sunday. “I think a lot of things are going to have to go right for all this to work. I’m optimistic, but I’m also cautious and a little hesitant at the same time.”

Once the owners and players begrudgingly settled on a financial framework for this season, everyone was eager to start talking about baseball stuff again: rule changes, power rankings, the dynamics of the 60-game sprint. We all were starving for the sport — and that included the players, who wanted to be back on the field.

But it’s not as if the coronavirus suddenly disappeared, either. Just the opposite. For most of the country, the pandemic has intensified, surging to record levels in states such as Florida, Arizona and Texas. And now that teams are getting a real sense of what they need to do during the pandemic, while glancing at the nationwide curves, that’s only increasing their trepidation.

“I think there’s still some doubt that we’re going to have a season now,” the Cardinals’ Andrew Miller told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday. “We’re here, but I’m from Florida — I read my local [newspaper] every day and I think we’re over 10,000 [coronavirus] cases again. By no means is this a slam dunk.”

Miller’s words carry additional weight because he is a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, which debated the feasibility of baseball for months. Ultimately, the Players Association reached an agreement with MLB on the 108-page operations manual being used to launch this summer camp and presumably attempt a season.

But those guidelines can’t guarantee the safety of a player or his family, which is why these next few weeks will serve as an audition of sorts. Some soon-to-be-dads, such as Mike Trout and Zack Wheeler, are going to need more assurance.

“It’s a very difficult decision,” Wheeler told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s something that is still playing in my head. I have to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go. The baby’s and Dominique’s health is most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they are safe, that is the No. 1 goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”

As Yankees lefthander James Paxton said Sunday, “So far it’s been going OK.” He is on the same union subcommittee as Miller, and every aspect of this process is constantly being scrutinized.

“We’re testing out the protocols and we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the risk,” Paxton said. “But there’s obviously still a risk, and we have to see if what we’re doing is going to work.”

No one knows that yet. And given what’s at stake, everyone is going to require more convincing.

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