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Striving for normalcy: Is now the right time for baseball?

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What are we doing here?

Philadelphia Phillies Summer Workouts Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As I sat down on my couch last Thursday evening, I performed a ritual that I had done many times in the past. One that usually begins in spring, and continues into October. I had just made myself dinner, kicked my feet up onto the coffee table, and flipped on the television broadcast for opening day.

“What month is it?” I thought. This ritual usually happens in March, and is associated with feelings of excitement, jitters, and relief. On Thursday, those feelings were unsettlingly absent.

As I watched the Nationals and Yankees step onto the field thoughts raced through my mind: “Can social distancing work in a dugout? Without true social isolation from everyone involved, is there any chance this season works? Is this even ethical?” But slowly the familiar crack of the bat, and snap of the glove lulled me away from the problems of the past 6 months. Alex Rodriguez’s odd commentary about loving the “man on second base in extra innings” rule perplexed me. Giancarlo Stanton’s home run wowed me.

Then Gary Sanchez did something that, under the normal laws of baseball, wouldn’t even be worthy of mention. Yet, in today’s world, things previously irrelevant have become relevant. Sanchez gripped the bottom of his catcher mask, pulled it back, pursed his lips and spit straight into the dirt. That single moment snapped me back to reality. “What are we doing here?”

There are moments in sport that I will never forget. Patrick Robinson’s interception in the 2017 NFCCG, Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue, Jose Bautista hammering a home run to put the Blue Jays ahead in the 2015 ALDS. These moments are unforgettable because they were unique, astounding, and special. It’s interesting to consider that something so ordinary, a baseball catcher spitting into the dirt, is now another “unforgettable” moment to me. Or maybe in the context of current world events Sanchez spitting into the dirt is not “ordinary.” Maybe we need to reevaluate what is “normal” and “abnormal.”

It is hard to fault anyone for wanting a return to the pre-covid world. People across the United States and the world are struggling. The mortality and economic destruction is unfathomable. Racial and ethnic disparities have led to a disproportionate burden felt by Black and Latinx communities. Being able to appropriately socially distance and work online is not a privilege that everyone can afford. The past 6 months have been hell, and we still have a long way to go.

Is baseball possible? What has the MLB leadership done incorrectly? It is hard to fault an attempt to bring baseball back, but sport is inherently a “close contact” activity. There is a growing body of research that makes it clear: COVID-19 transmission probability is directly correlated to the physical distance between an infected and healthy individual. Masks reduce the risk of infection, and eye protection reduces the risk of infection. Enclosed spaces are bad, open outdoor spaces are safer. Many baseball players don’t wear masks on the field, or in the dugouts. The dugouts and the locker rooms are enclosed spaces. Think about how fast covid spread through a cruise ship. This doesn’t seem safe.

And what about the rest of the staff that work in the building? The cleaning staff? There is unclear data about how long COVID-19 hangs out on contaminated surfaces, but similar viruses had detectable infectivity six days after landing on a surface. Six days. That means that the Miami Marlins’ romp in the Phillies’ away dugout and locker room could have a lasting impact. The incoming New York Yankees players could have been exposed and the cleaning staff could have been exposed.

Then, there is the ethics of playing baseball, in general. As a physician, I took the hippocratic oath, during which I swore: “that I will not withdraw from my patients in their time of need.” Did baseball players and staff take a similar oath that I am unaware of? To risk the lives of themselves and their family to provide a sense of “normalcy” to a world ravaged by illness? To risk catching that illness, themselves? I have been fortunate. In the hospital, now, I am provided with proper training and protective equipment to do my job safely. Can we really say that baseball players and staff have been afforded the same? I saw Gary Sanchez spit into the dirt Thursday night. I saw players high five-ing and spending time together in the dugout: an enclosed space.

For now, there is a new normal. Organized sports without proper health precautions are abnormal, and baseball has not taken the proper steps to proceed with a safe season. For the health and safety of the Philadelphia Phillies’ players, staff, and management, and those involved with baseball as a whole, it may be time to step back and reevaluate the viability of a baseball season. And for everyone else, stay safe out there.