Baseball is back. Sort of. No one is certain just how long it will last, and it’s going to look strange and unfamiliar while it’s here. And it will likely serve as a COVID-era test case for other sports — from the largest professional associations to U-8 youth soccer leagues — looking to hit the field this fall.
First, the good news. Last week, Major League Baseball owners and players struck a deal that allows for a pandemic-shortened 60-game season, followed by playoffs and the crowning of the league’s 116th World Series champion.
That means we should see the Red Sox take the field at Fenway Park sometime next month. But they shouldn’t expect to experience the sun-kissed, sausage-scented summer nights of past years. For one thing, fans won’t be allowed in the stands. Players won’t be allowed to chew sunflower seeds, so there will be no spitting in the dugout. Chest bumps after a home run are banned, and managers must keep six feet away when arguing with an umpire over a blown call.
Strange days, indeed.
The odd nature of the 2020 version of America’s pastime overshadows the larger question: How long can the games go on? Players and other workers have legitimate concerns over whether they can safely gather and play a semi-contact sport for months without contracting — and spreading — COVID-19. One unnamed Red Sox player has already tested positive for the virus, as have five members of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“What happens when we all get it?” Milwaukee pitcher Brett Anderson tweeted this week.
Meanwhile, the NBA — which hopes to resume its season in isolation in Orlando — has already seen several players test positive. Tennis great Novak Djokovic contracted the virus after a non-socially-distanced exhibition earlier this month.
Whether baseball can offer some semblance of sport this summer will likely influence the decision of high school and college athletic directors wondering if they can stage a fall season.
If the aggressive testing and social distancing measures can keep the virus in check, that could offer a road map for high school, recreational and youth leagues. If those measures fail, organizers of amateur sports will at least have a case study to help them choose how much risk is acceptable for a chance to take the field.