Add integrity of the game to the costs of trying to salvage the Major League Baseball and football seasons.
Its schedule already compressed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have forced MLB to give up all pretense that this season is equivalent to any other. A week in, it announced that seven-inning doubleheaders would be played to try and fit more games in. There’s talk playoff spots might be determined by winning percentages over an unequal number of games.
And when the Marlins and Cardinals do resume play, they’ll need name tags because of all the taxi squad players needed to fill out the rosters.
What’s next? A best-of-seven game of rock, paper, scissors to determine the World Series champion?
Meanwhile, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have conceded they can only play conference games this season. But given the threat of boycotts by Pac-12 players as well as the outbreak at Rutgers, what happens if a school can’t field a full team? Or has to shut down midway through the season?
Is playing simply for the sake of playing worth it? The majority of Americans don’t think so.
In a Harris poll that is to be released Wednesday, 58% of respondents said MLB should stop the season because of the COVID outbreaks. That same percentage doubts MLB will be able to complete its abbreviated season.
And in a stat that should give leaders in all sports pause, 48 percent of the Harris respondents said watching sports now is much or somewhat more boring than it used to be.
These are not existential questions. If we’ve learned anything about COVID-19 over the last six months, it’s that it does not care about best-laid plans and protocols. The virus might have a more severe impact on certain parts of the population but, as the cases of Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney show in stark fashion, the young and fit are not immune.
Rodriguez, who was supposed to be Boston’s opening day starter, is out for the season because of an inflamed heart that followed his bout with COVID-19. Feeney wound up in the emergency room after contracting the virus during voluntary workouts last month.
“Now we are dealing with possible heart issues! He is still experiencing additional symptoms and his blood work is indicating additional problems,” Feeney’s mother, Debbie Rucker, wrote in an emotional Facebook post about her son.
“Bottom line, even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!!”
And therein lies the problem.
Fingers can be pointed and eyebrows raised at irresponsible behavior. (Some of the Marlins left the team hotel to get coffee? That’s really the best you’ve got, Derek Jeter?) But the truth is that this is a highly contagious disease that spreads rapidly, particularly when travel is involved.
Unless practices and games take place in a bubble, an impossibility for football, players and coaches are going to be infected. It’s simply a question of when, how many and how quickly an outbreak can be contained.
“The SEC and Vanderbilt are attempting to implement safe playing conditions for the players, but there are only so many precautions one can take while playing the game of football in various cities on a large team in a college environment during a global pandemic,” Vanderbilt kicker Oren Milstein wrote Monday on Twitter, explaining his decision to opt out of the season.
Which leads back to the question of whether this is all worth it.
Sure, having baseball back has been a blessed distraction, a chance to fool ourselves into thinking that life is normal, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. But look closely, and the game is as altered as our reality.
MLB has always prized the “integrity of the game,” to the point former commissioner Bud Selig insisted teams play meaningless makeup games in September so everyone would play 162 games. Now commissioner Rob Manfred, owners and, yes, even players, are willing to sell their souls – and their health – for the payoff of the playoffs.
But is it really Major League Baseball when half the team is made up of minor leaguers, as will be the case while the infected Marlins and Cardinals players complete their quarantines?
While some MLB teams have already played 11 games, the Marlins have gotten in just three. What happens if they squeak into the playoffs – Miami had a slim lead in the NL East before resuming play Tuesday – ahead of a team that played more games?
And what happens when there are more outbreaks, as there surely will be so long as the virus is running rampant in this country? Is it really going to take a player winding up on a ventilator before we admit that baseball and football are simply a luxury we cannot afford until there’s a vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19?
Athletes often talk about the sacrifices they have made throughout their career. But their health, and the integrity of the games they play, shouldn’t be among them.