A few days of no new COVID-19 positive tests raised hopes within MLB. Maybe they could get on a roll. Push toward as close to normalcy as you will get in 2020.
But that is not this season. MLB was so close on Friday to a full slate of games — all 30 teams playing — for the first time since July 26. Then another Cardinal was revealed positive for the virus. That moved MLB to postpone the Cubs-Cardinals weekend series, keeping St. Louis frozen at five games played, none since July 29.
Suddenly, I was thinking about “Apollo 13,” which has been common recently. The movie is based on a lunar landing that must be aborted due to damage to the spacecraft, forcing a salvage operation to return the three astronauts safely to earth.
“From this moment on, we are improvising a new mission,” said chief flight director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris. As incoming problems pile upon old ones, Kranz implores that, “Failure is not an option.”
As re-entry for the astronauts to earth’s atmosphere nears, a media-affairs official, bracing for what to tell the public as catastrophe looms, lists all that still could go wrong. A flight director validates, “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.”
I have probably seen it 25 times, yet still choke up when Kranz turns to the flight director and unflinchingly delivers: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”
You probably see where I am going here. MLB’s familiar assignment — staging a 162-game schedule and playoffs — blew up. Since then, the league has rewritten and retrofitted to try to safely (as possible) bring an improvised season to completion while new problems arise, necessitating more rewriting and retrofitting.
Obviously, this is not as noble as trying to return three humans successfully from space. It is often seen as not noble at all, simply a money grab to get through the postseason. I would like to think there is more to it than that.
There are officials and players committed to this process to provide continuity, entertainment and keep the sport prominent in fans’ minds. And, of course, everyone also is trying to protect the cash cow.
Would getting through this season and crowning a champion amid a pandemic and its obstacles be remembered as one of MLB’s “finest hours?” As the positive test for the Cardinals reiterated — as if reiteration were necessary — the threats to health, safety and credibility lurk. Some thoughts as MLB tries to keep failure from being an option:
— Marlins and Cardinals officials have insisted the most scurrilous reports of what sparked their outbreaks have not proved accurate. If this is not spin, it underscores that a minor transgression — and perhaps not even that — could lead to one person contracting the virus and creating a roster-wide problem. In some ways, it would be better if personnel did trigger these problems by, say, going to a strip joint or casino because those are practices more easily curtailed.
Also, with schools reopening in many places, do personnel that live with their school-aged children become more susceptible to contracting the virus? If so, are we looking at regular weeklong shutdowns for teams from here to the end of the season, wrecking the psyche of those playing, the schedule and credibility?
— MLB says that injury volume would take a month of data to accurately evaluate. However, The Athletic detailed a sharp rise in pitching injuries compared to previous seasons through the first 10 days this year. That big-name starters such as Clayton Kershaw (who has since returned), Justin Verlander, Mike Soroka, Shohei Ohtani, Corey Kluber, etc., have been struck only elevates a sense that the disruption to normal preparation has made a job replete with injury risk even more so.
By deciding to keep rosters at 28 the rest of the way (rather than drop to 26 in another two weeks), limiting extra innings and making doubleheader games seven innings each, MLB has attempted to reduce the burden specifically on pitching. Still, the buildup, shutdown, buildup, hurry-into-spring training 2.0 nature of preparation moved one pitching coordinator to describe this season as “The Hunger Games.”
Already teams such as the Marlins, Astros and Red Sox are reaching deep into their ranks to find enough arms. Entering the weekend, just three of Houston’s 15 pitchers had more than 1 ¹/₂ years of major league experience (nine had zero before this year). Will more teams soon have such desperation to fill staffs? What does that do to competition?
— Add the first point (COVID cases) to the second (injuries), and will more than the 20-ish players to date opt out? Come September, will players on teams with no chance of making the playoffs begin exiting in greater numbers to avoid the COVID risks and injuries?
Most will stay wanting the salaries or service time, or because of commitment to the sport or teammates or general love of the competition. But MLB should probably brace for also-rans having players flee before the finish line. It was not uncommon in the past when rosters expanded in September (a rule eliminated this year) for non-contenders to prioritize seeing youngsters late.
But this year you might have those rosters beset by not just opt-outs that force inexperienced players into action, but higher injury levels and whatever COVID-19 impacts. That would further threaten the credibility. Perhaps the amended protocols and greater vigilance will keep players safer and committed to continue forward.
Would just finishing this season through all the obstacles, in whatever form, be among MLB’s finest hours?