We may not like it, but MLB did the right thing in postponing the start to the season.
The redoubtable Washington Post MLB writer Thomas Boswell came right out and called for it Wednesday. Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said concurrently that some things are bigger than baseball. Now Major League Baseball has suspended the rest of spring training and postponed Opening Day two weeks.
“After a conference call among owners this afternoon,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan late Thursday morning, “Major League Baseball is expected to suspend spring training. The league likely will delay the beginning of the regular season as well. At this point, it’s a formality that ownership-level sources expect to happen.”
Early Thursday afternoon, the expected happened. “Nothing is more important to us,” says the statement from commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, “than the health and safety of our players, employees, and fans.”
That’s one day after the National Basketball Association suspended the rest of their season over the coronavirus. (The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer have also suspended their remaining seasons.) Thank the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert in big part for that, if you’re a basketball fan.
One minute, Gobert mocked the virus by touching reporters’ mikes and cell phones and notebooks. The next, Gobert tested positive for the big bug. Hope Gobert’s proud of himself. Jokes are supposed to be funny.
Bryant knows that while it’s too easy to fall into incessant panic it’s even easier to think that your profession is bigger than a virus that’s a very real threat to the very real people who love, engage, and pay very hard-earned money to watch.
“We just we all need to take precautions and be safe,” Bryant told the Chicago Tribune. “I have a lot of family members who are older, too, and I’d love to keep them safe and our fans and everyone around the game. It just shows there are things bigger than baseball, and these are things we need to take very seriously.”
So far as anyone knows, Bryant didn’t even think about kidding around by touching the writer’s mike, cell phone, or notebook. He was more concerned about things like the prospect of playing baseball before crowds of zero, something Baltimore Orioles veteran Chris Davis isn’t exactly thrilled about, having been-there/done-that after the Baltimore riot of 2015.
“I keep saying it’s people’s safety and health that is the most important thing,” Bryant said. “If we can find a way to not put people in jeopardy, that’s what I’m all for. People’s lives mean more to me than baseball.”
If Kris Bryant, who loves the game as dearly as any young man who’s ever played it, could say that, baseball had every reason to heed it. Boswell wrote the same thing, more or less:
MLB’s decision about spring training may just be a warmup — but a useful one — for much tougher decisions to come as Opening Day approaches . . . The time for MLB to act is now. Baseball, caught amid several integrity of the game issues, has a chance to do the right thing at the right time; while it would lose some money, the game would gain far more in respect and restored stature.
Either cancel spring training games and play intrasquad games, or play without fans in the stands until Opening Day in two weeks. Don’t wait to see what happens. Don’t wait until we all see more nationwide test results or until an outbreak erupts near a spring training camp and, perhaps, health officials trace back the origins of a community outbreak to a trivial spring training game.
Professional athletes aren’t exactly universally immune to delusions of grandeur. A few of them have been fool enough to believe they were invincible. Until they weren’t. A lot of them had no delusions about how mortal they were off the field, off the court, outside the ring. Until they were proven tragically right.
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A longtime gag had it that an airline stewardess once advised Muhammad Ali to fasten his seat belt, to which Ali replied with his signature big grin, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” The stewardess was distinctly unimpressed. She deadpanned, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.”
It’s one thing to laugh in the face of crisis or disaster. When the Great Depression struck deep, Will Rogers went aboard radio’s Good Gulf Program and told his listeners, “We hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile.” Today Italy can say that, considering it’s practically closed the entire country down, they hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever succumbed to a possible pandemic on personal computers.
That’s called laughing like Figaro that you might not weep. Gobert’s funny cost playoff-bound NBA teams a chance to pocket big playoff pelf. His teammate Donovan Mitchell has also turned up coronavirus-positive. Mitchell isn’t in the mood to be flip, just humbled.
“Thanks to everyone who has been reaching out since hearing the news about my positive test,” the All-Star guard wrote on his Instagram page. “We are all learning more about the seriousness of this situation and hopefully people can continue to educate themselves and realize that they need to behave responsibly both for their own health and for the well being of those around them.”
Passan reported late Wednesday that “numerous” baseball teams began pulling scouts off the road and sending them home, while some teams whom he didn’t identify began curtailing travel. MLB already braced for more local and even state governments to ban large gatherings while the coronavirus travels so far and so wide.
“It felt like the most meaningless game in the history of the sport,” said St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter, about an exhibition game, after he was told baseball might suspend the rest of spring training.
There will be meaningful baseball to come once the coronavirus is knocked to one side. A recovering nation will need the game badly. Just as we needed baseball and other games to give succor whenever we’ve faced pestilence, disaster, and war in the past.
The 1979-81 crisis of Americans held hostage in Iran? The U.S. hockey team gave the country one incandescent morale boost (and much of the world a thrill) with their dramatic Olympics triumph.
The Boston Marathon bombing? The Red Sox yanked a stricken city all the way to the 2013 World Series championship.
“Our hearts get in the way of our heads — even the smart heads,” Boswell wrote. But even the smart heads get awful dumb, or awful self-aggrandising, awful fast, when it comes to something like the coronavirus. Baseball is often called the thinking person’s sport. Now’s the time for baseball to think. Hard.
“Baseball needs to get past its idyllic image of spring training and its place in the natural rhythm of the game,” Boswell continued. “Like the rest of us, MLB needs to face the reality we have, not the one we would prefer.”
The short term idyll is worth the sacrifice on behalf of the longer term health, of the game and the country that loves it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what MLB’s government just told the people and the nation who’ve loved the game so deeply so long.