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MLB Tried. It Failed. Let's Learn From It

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Hey, we all wanted it to work.  And if any institution is going to figure out a Covid workaround it will be one of the professional sports leagues, given the financial investment and potential economic devastation if they can’t.  I wrote in this space back in May about how we should all applaud MLB’s attempt to return in the midst of the pandemic because, let’s be honest here, somebody’s got to give it a shot.  Rather them than my kid.

If MLB, the NFL, NBA and the NHL can’t make it work then how the hell is my kid’s public school district -- perennially cash-strapped and understaffed as it is, and seriously lacking the financial incentive to instill costly best practices -- supposed to?

So it was upsetting to learn this morning that the Miami Marlins have become a Covid hotspot unto themselves.  As of this writing at least 12 players have tested positive; more are sure to join this list in the coming days.  Whatever plan MLB put in place it’s not too early to conclude that it was a disaster, at least on that club. 

If you watched any of the three-game debacle over the weekend you saw more than predictably dreadful baseball between two clubs that are Major League in name only.  (Am I the only one who was introduced to a brand new Phillie nearly every time Girardi made a call to the ‘pen?)  You saw precisely how not to handle a group dynamic in the time of Covid.  You saw a few players and coaches wearing masks but more who didn’t; you saw players make repeated bodily contact in the bullpens and dugouts, you saw them sit in close proximity with each other even though there was plenty of room for them to spread out.  In short, you saw a bunch of players who appeared to believe they were immune to a virus that has infected 4.2 million Americans to date, killing nearly 150,000 of them.  This morning they learned that at least when it comes to Covid they’re just like everybody else.

So what’s the takeaway?  First, that whatever the rules are they need to be strictly adhered to.  Masks must be mandatory at all times in all public places.  On the field that means in the dugouts, in the bullpens, on the diamond.  Yeah, they’re uncomfortable and on a hot day they make it feel even hotter.  Too bad.  Shut up and wear one. 

Second, all of us need to appreciate that what we’re seeing in baseball is the BEST CASE SCENARIO as it applies to our kids when they’re told to return to their school buildings in September.  Major League baseball players, with millions of dollars on the line, couldn’t be trusted to wear their masks all the time.  Does anybody think the nine-year-old kid with the terminally runny nose sitting next to their daughter will do any better? 

Third, six-feet means six-feet regardless of how badly we want to see live baseball or our kids in the classroom.  The virus doesn’t care that we’re bored watching old ballgames or that our kids have turned into sloths in the months since this pandemic hit.  It will infect anybody within breathing distance.  Sadly, that means that we all need to remain physically distanced.  Three-feet in the classroom is not only doomed to fail, it’s borderline criminally negligent given what we now know about the virus.

MLB gave it a shot and I still applaud that.  The NBA has gone a different route, creating a bubble in which, in theory at least, nobody can enter or leave.  We’ll see how that goes.  In the meantime, we ought to heed the hard lessons the Phils-Marlins series this weekend have taught us.  Which are bigger than simply that you can’t pull garbage out of a landfill and call it a bullpen.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.  You might as well buy it as it looks like you’re going to continue to have time on your hands.

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