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Baseball took elaborate precautions for pandemic play, but the virus is already winning | COMMENTARY

Members of the Florida National Guard monitor vehicles at a COVID-19 testing site outside of Marlins Park, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami. The Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night has been postponed as the Marlins deal with a coronavirus outbreak that stranded them in Philadelphia.
Members of the Florida National Guard monitor vehicles at a COVID-19 testing site outside of Marlins Park, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami. The Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night has been postponed as the Marlins deal with a coronavirus outbreak that stranded them in Philadelphia. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Decades before the nation’s pastime was invented, Robert Burns captured the essence of the sport from far away in Scotland with his observation about how the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Baseball has proved this adage over and over again. Take the 1969 Mets besting the Orioles. Please. Or Bill Buckner’s fielding in the 1986 World Series. Or maybe the idiot who thought 10-cent beer night in Cleveland in 1974 was a wonderful idea. Or at least how unlikely it was that Rick Dempsey with his career .233 batting average was World Series MVP in 1983. Just when Major League Baseball looks predictable and stodgy (a sport that fosters endless debate over the exact dimensions of the strike zone is surely leaning in that direction), somebody throws a curve.

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

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On Monday and Tuesday nights, the Baltimore Orioles were set to play the Miami Marlins in Florida in only their fourth and fifth games scheduled for the pandemic-shortened season. The games were “postponed” by the coronavirus. Not because anyone involved was unaware the virus existed but because Marlins games are threatening to become their own super-spreader events. At least 17 players and club staff have reportedly tested positive. The outbreak left the Marlins stranded in Philadelphia with MLB deciding by mid-afternoon Tuesday that the team should sit out through at least Sunday and the Phillies until Friday as well. In other words, the threat of Orioles Park becoming Baltimore’s biggest hot spot with two Marlins games scheduled to be played there beginning Wednesday has been nullified, at least for now. The O’s are getting the Yankees instead.

Make no mistake, we have been rooting for MLB action for months, the return of the Orioles and the other franchises a much-needed relief for stuck-at-home sports fans already weary of watching “encore” performances from baseball seasons past. But we could not have predicted that three games into a 60-game season, the whole enterprise would look to be on the verge of coming apart at the seams. As Dr. Anthony Fauci observed Tuesday, the season as a whole is already in danger. We don’t much enjoy the possibility of anyone, no matter how well paid or youthful and vital, risking his life for the amusement of television viewers. And it’s certainly not acceptable when it extends to front office staff down to secretaries and trainers. Is this Camden Yards or the Colosseum in Ancient Rome?

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Did Commissioner Rob Manfred and his minions think this through? Actually, they appear to have made quite an effort. Baseball imposed elaborate precautions after weeks of negotiations with the players’ union. Lots of testing. No high-fives, spitting, licking of fingers or chest-bumping. Personal protective gear worn off the field. There are even protocols about how to get to the games (driving alone is best). The problem more likely stems from each team’s base of operations. The Marlins happen to exist in Florida where there’s been a stunning 79% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since July 4 with Dade County among the area’s hardest hit.

Perhaps Commissioner Manfred can keep canceling games until the situation has stabilized and that will prove adequate. We do not relish the prospect of calling off the season entirely (even though if it happened today, the lowly Orioles would finish with a truly improbable 2-1 winning record) but turning baseball into a public health fiasco would be so much worse — a symbol of this nation’s botched COVID-19 response broadcast large. Baseball should be prepared to do that if a lot more players are sidelined from other teams. How long before star players drop out rather than show up in Miami, for example? Or teams have to field minor leaguers? Or what happens the day there’s a fatality? We mourn a life lost to cable television ratings? It’s one thing to risk lives for the greater good, it’s another to do so for the nation’s entertainment. The season was already asterisk-loaded.

Other professional sports need to take note. How long before the National Basketball Association, set to resume play Thursday with all games in Orlando and playoffs in mid-August, has its bubble penetrated by the virus? The National Football League season looks particularly impossible even as training camps open. We love baseball but we love people like the late Dr. Joseph Costa, the Mercy Medical Center critical care chief who died of COVID-19 on Saturday, more. COVID-19 is not easily contained, its spread often unpredictable. Putting sports above public safety would be unacceptable.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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