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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Right off the bat, MLB's 2020 season dealt a reality check with Juan Soto's positive test

A heart is visible in center field with

A heart is visible in center field with the letters "DC" at Washington Nationals stadium in Washington on Friday. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

Yankees manager Aaron Boone surely had scripted a few pregame messages for his players upon their arrival for Thursday night’s prime time opener in D.C.

One he didn’t figure on?

STAY AWAY FROM THE NATIONALS!

Unfortunately, that became Boone’s No. 1 priority after Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19 that morning, raising the possibility that his teammates also could be infected. The game wound up a 4-1 Yankees win that was called in the sixth inning because of rain.

Everyone should have been prepared for such a bombshell. This exact scenario has dominated any conversation about baseball for months now. But when it does actually become a reality, and to a player of that magnitude, the revelation is still jarring, on a number of levels.

“I’d be even more careful now because obviously you don’t know what the fallout is from this,” Boone said Thursday afternoon. “Here it is Opening Day and one of the game’s best players it happens to. So it’s another reminder that it’s important to do all we can to keep ourselves safe, but also everyone to be careful”

Soto’s health is the primary concern and the Nationals said their 21-year-old slugger is asymptomatic, so that’s the good news. From a baseball perspective, however, the Nats instantly lose their best offensive player for an indefinite period and MLB immediately has reason to fret over the integrity of this pandemic-ridden schedule.

Again, Soto’s speedy and full recovery is the ultimate goal here. But it’s also alarming that the Nationals were forced to carry on with Thursday’s opener, even though they had no idea how many others could be infected. General manager Mike Rizzo said those who had been in contact with Soto were tested again Thursday, but those results won’t come back for another two days.

And what about the Yankees? They already had Aroldis Chapman under quarantine back home in New York, and only welcomed back DJ LeMahieu a few days earlier from his own bout with the coronavirus. Now Boone & Co. would be playing a team possibly in the early, undetected stages of an outbreak. While baseball is a socially-distanced sport to begin with, the Yankees still would come into close proximity with the Nats at the plate and potentially around the bases.

Did that make Boone reluctant at all about playing?

“No — no hesitation,” Boone said Thursday afternoon. “I think we all know what we signed up for. We knew this was going to be a reality on given days. We’re doing, we feel like, a lot to be safe — as safe as possible. We also understand that there’s some risks that go with that. And I’m comfortable doing that.”

MLB has gone to extraordinary lengths to put on this season, following the 108-page operations manual to the letter, and the number of positives has steadily declined since the intake-screening process began in late June. But this is not an airtight environment. LeMahieu tested positive before he returned to New York, but Chapman already was working out in the Bronx, with his teammates, when he contracted the virus.

Soto’s situation may be even more troubling. He was tested Tuesday and played in that night’s exhibition game against the Orioles, meaning at that point Soto was an asymptomatic spreader of the virus. The Nationals have done their own in-house contact tracing, but the decision to go ahead with Opening Night was unsettling as the team still was waiting on test results from players that may have been affected.

“Yeah, definitely worried,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said. “The importance of wearing our masks throughout— for me, I don’t go anywhere except for in this room, but I have my mask on 24/7 to protect myself, to protect other people, ‘cause you just don’t know.

“I’m a little bit more concerned now until we get our next test results back and everybody comes back negative. This is part of it – for me, it stinks; but we are in a pandemic, we are trying to play through it. And what I told the guys, I said we just gotta be very, very careful. And that’s all.”

Obviously, we’re learning that careful isn’t enough. Careful is not a guarantee. But is it right for baseball to just absorb the casualties like Soto, or Chapman, or whomever is next, and just keep plowing forward? For now, MLB’s plan is to do precisely that, until it becomes impossible to continue.

Soto testing positive only a matter of hours before the season’s first pitch, causing the Nationals to send out a team of potentially-infected players, wasn’t enough to derail Opening Night. But as Boone said, we don’t know the fallout yet.

“This is part of preparation for baseball in 2020,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to have to learn how to adjust to these things, and I think that the team that really does the best job of keeping their star players on the field and keeping them healthy, has got a better chance of winning than the other teams.”

By Rizzo’s estimation, this 60-game season is a war of attrition, and the Nationals already were dealt a devastating loss Thursday before Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the first pitch. The lasting damage from Opening Night, however, could end up being much worse.

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