I watched Opening Day between the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees while sitting beneath a skylight ten miles from Nationals Park—which is to say, I had as good a view as any fan. The seats in the stadium were empty. I had imagined that the sight of a sea of empty seats would give me a sense of dislocation; fans, after all, are what bring a stadium to life, and connect a team to its history. But that didn’t happen. I was glad, in fact, that the Nationals had decided to forgo cardboard cutouts of fans, which look ghoulish on the screen. Instead, the team had wrung a few dollars from Delta, whose name was now on the backs of seats. Nationals Park is new and unromantic; it is not Fenway or Wrigley, and advertisers have as much of a claim to it as do the game’s august ghosts. Besides, it’s been a long time since the sight of a crowd gave me comfort.
What did reassure me, instead, was the game’s sound. The crowd noise was fake, but unobtrusive. And synthetic sounds have a place in baseball’s history, too. Radio announcers, including a young Ronald Reagan, used to re-create games by taking the bones of a box score and embellishing them with action: a ball tossed into the web of a glove, a bat slapped with a ruler. The soundtrack of summer baseball in Washington has always been for me what it was that night: the whine of crickets, the rumble of distant thunder, the thump of the ball on leather, the crack of the bat on the ball.
After a few innings, lightning flashed above me, followed by the shattering sound of rain on the roof: rain delay. On the screen, as Alex Rodriguez gave a fawning interview to Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, lightning nearly tickled his shoulder. The game was called in the sixth: Yankees win, 4–1. By then, there had been real baseball. In the first, Giancarlo Stanton hit the ball so high and hard that he had to bend backward to watch it leave the park.
Anthony Fauci was there, too. He threw a first pitch that curved hard left and then dove toward the grass, dribbling toward the baseline. His presence was a reminder of those who were not there—not only the crowd but also Juan Soto, last year’s World Series hero, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, the Nationals announced just hours before the game. Contact tracing was hastily done, more test results were pending. A hundred pages of protocols, countless hours of consulting with some of the world’s top epidemiologists, all the models of risk assessment, and, in the end, the beginning of the baseball season came down to what it always does: simple hope.
There was a little bit of hope for everyone on opening weekend: no team went winless during the first three games. On Friday, the league and players’ union reported that, of the nearly eleven thousand tests performed in the week prior to Opening Day, only six were new positives. The knot in my stomach slowly loosened, and my focus shifted more and more to the field: to Nelson Cruz, who still hasn’t aged; to Justin Verlander, and his strained forearm; again to Stanton, whose second home run of the season seemed to still be rising when it reached the stands. Everything seemed almost ordinary, which was extraordinary. There were a few masks in the dugout and on the base paths, but not many. There were high fives—which are against the rules, but who could begrudge them? On Sunday night, listening to the radio broadcast of a game between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, I started to drift off, so familiar and soothing was the game’s white noise.
I woke up to the news that at least eleven Miami Marlins players and three members of the team’s coaching staff had tested positive for the coronavirus in the previous few days. By Friday, the number of positives had swollen to twenty-one, including eighteen players—more than half of the Marlins’ roster. All Marlins games were postponed through the weekend, and the team remained in Philadelphia, where they had been playing the Phillies. (On Friday, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reported that the infected Marlins would be bused back to Miami.) The Phillies’ games against the Yankees were also postponed, while Phillies players and staff were tested. Two rounds of tests came back, all negative, though a visiting clubhouse attendant tested positive—and on Thursday the series between the Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays was postponed after a member of the Phillies’ coaching staff and a member of the home-clubhouse staff also tested positive.
The hope is that the Phillies players will continue to test negative, and that the Marlins will be able to field a team from those who remain cleared—plus a few players claimed off the waiver wire, signed as free agents, or nabbed from the pool of reserves. Sixty games is a very short season, but some teams may not make it even that far. The original regulations were written with the expectation that outbreaks would be limited: there were rules for sitting in a dugout and disinfecting a baseball, but no rules that established when it would be unacceptable to go on. The protocols were meant to be flexible; we are finding out now how far they will bend.
On Monday, Manfred told ESPN the Marlins’ situation was not yet the sort of “nightmare” scenario that he had described earlier in the month, when he mused that the season might have to be reëvaluated if a club became so incapacitated by the virus that it could not compete. What would constitute an actual nightmare for him? It seems hard to say. But here’s one of mine: according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, even after four players on the Marlins had already tested positive, including the day’s starting pitcher, the team reached the decision to play via group text, and by consulting their veteran shortstop. I don’t fault them: players have already made difficult decisions to join their teams, and their natural mindset is to grit their teeth through the tough parts. They are without the resources and responsibilities of the league executives. But, without clear guidance, players are left to make decisions in an ad-hoc way. The Marlins were not the only ones put in that position. On Tuesday, the Nationals voted against travelling to Florida, a hotspot for the virus, to play the Marlins later in the week. Only afterward was the Marlins’ play suspended and the schedule reshuffled.
“What do we actually know that we didn’t know yesterday?” Bill James, the sabermetrics guru, tweeted on Tuesday. “Did anybody not know we were in a pandemic? Anyone not know that the virus spreads wildly? Anyone not know that Miami was a HOT spot? Did anyone not know that baseball players could catch this? What actually have we learned?” Fauci, for his part, told ESPN he thought that Major League Baseball “handled it well, to be honest with you, in that they’ve done virtually everything that you could do to try to get the main goal,” i.e., “to protect the health and the welfare of the players and of the personnel associated with the team.” In his view, the league would need to take the situation, as they say with players on the injured reserve, day to day.