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Why they will play

It’s not a value judgment.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Ice Horse!
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The reasons not to play are obvious: In the nation with the biggest COVID outbreak on Earth, one that is also entering a second Civil Rights movement, baseball is neither safe nor important. This is the opinion of the majority of my timeline and one with which I am surprised to disagree.

In theory, at least. Further outbreaks within teams and, to an extent, a continued rending of the social order could render this column moot. All of this is taking place on a knife’s edge and we have no idea if the knife will stay upright through the end of this sentence, let alone this season, and by far the easiest solution would be to pack it all in until all of “this” is over, whatever your definition of “this.”

Given the successful returns of the Premier League, Bundesliga, Korean Baseball Organization, and bubbled-off German and Chinese basketball leagues, we know organized sports are possible, though America’s pathetic national response represents an obvious point of differentiation. Even here, NASCAR and the National Women’s Soccer League have ramped up, the latter to plaudits, while the NBA is hard at work establishing its Orlando bubble, a project that feels on par, difficulty wise, with the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

And baseball? Baseball is lurching ahead, insisting on its importance after the owners spent months trying to illustrate how little they care about the sport. There are games scheduled for later this month, and the whiplash, combined with skyrocketing COVID case counts in baseball-friendly states, puts the whole enterprise on uncomfortable footing. I’ve seen variations on the idea that “sports are a luxury for a healthy society, and ours is not a healthy society,” and I’m sympathetic to that argument even if its fundamental premise is wrong.

Sports are not an indication of a healthy society. There’s a reason the Olympics and World Cup are bought and sold to nations with pitiful human rights records and, locally, there’s a reason people have been marching in America’s streets. The idea that sports define a society as healthy, and that, by extension, America was a healthy society prior to March... that argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Especially on the Civil Rights front, America is ailing, but from a chronic illness.

For some players, Ian Desmond among them, this is a good enough reason to sit out the year, and I have nothing but respect for him or fans who believe the games will distract from the larger message of reforming society. I am simply of the opinion, as is Bomani Jones with respect to the NBA, that we will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I do not think they stopped protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to dice up White Sox scores, and I don’t think that will happen here.

I am far more sympathetic to the idea that sports are a public health hazard, and that the games and environment could lead to harmful vectors to spread the virus. Insofar as doing anything but sitting on your butt is a public health hazard, there is no rejoinder for this except that it’s not healthy to continually sit on your butt. That said, people have continued to grocery shop during the pandemic, they’ve protested in huge gatherings that didn’t appreciably spread the virus, and, as baseball players, they’ve prepared to play baseball. The problem has never been the people who are trying to be safe — it’s the people who refuse to try. Baseball will try. A player in the sport, in a virus-ravaged state, is much better off under the league’s supervision than outside of it, from a strict testing perspective.

Another angle that critics take is how a team will respond to an outbreak, and, to a lesser extent, if certain players getting infected and/or the 60-game schedule affect the “legitimacy” of the season at all. If we’re already screwed, the thinking goes, why screw things further in the cause of something that’ “doesn’t matter” until the danger has passed? Part of my issue here is I think some of these critics are not facing the full scope of COVID — the before and after is a matter of years, not months, and hardly seems likely to be a matter of finding a vaccine that turns it off like a light switch. There is evidence that antibodies might even disappear, meaning people could potentially catch it multiple times — we just don’t know. If we wait until we do, we could a long, long time.

Similarly, across all sports, some fans are worried about high profile players potentially catching the virus, somehow discounting the work of those that don’t, but I can’t see it much different than a season-ending injury. It is a risk that will always be there until it is definitively not, and I think we are underestimating the degree to which the virus is a permanent part of our world that we can wait to build around or build around now, but can’t avoid. From this perspective, I understand why the sport leagues are moving forward. They only exist to move forward in this way.

Finally, it seems to me the players sure want to play, knowing the risks, and that’s basically the whole ballgame. There’s not just money at stake, but identities: baseball players play baseball, and without baseball, these guys don’t feel fully human. And yet with all of this said, if I was commissioner, I’d still have probably canceled the year out of an abundance of caution, but I don’t begrudge them for trying to play. There is no magical thinking here, just the cold reality that these are our lives now. There’s no hiding from this, on or off the field.