Don’t burst our bubble

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

Like so many other baseball fans in dire need of a respite from all the doom and gloom, I excitedly pumped my fist when I heard that our national pastime would be a go in 2020 in the form of an abbreviated 60-game season.

I discovered that the coronavirus made some new rules necessary, like ones prohibiting players from spitting (no small task, for a baseball player) and hugging or even high-fiving. So imagine my casual surprise when watching one of the first games of the season I caught the pitcher on the mound casually spitting.

Did an umpire warn him? Did the opposing team’s manager call him out? Did anyone in the stadium even wag a finger? Nope.

It could’ve been just another normal, pre-pandemic game. During another contest, after a player scored and trotted into the dugout, he raised his arms and waggled his fingers, and his teammates reciprocated with the same weird “jazz hands” gesture.

At least they weren’t touching. But didn’t take long for elbow bumps to give way to proper high fives and back slaps, then outright celebratory embraces.

Tampa Bay Rays’ outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, after belting the game-winning hit against the Toronto Blue Jays three games into the season, celebrated with several high-fives and even hugs for teammate Jose Martinez and manager Kevin Cash. Though players are encouraged to social distance in the small confines of the dugout and bullpen, they don’t always comply, and they’re finding it even tougher to stifle their passion on the field.

Kiermaier called his actions a “heat of the moment thing,” and said he didn’t “regret it one bit.” With a hefty dose of unintentional irony, he then hoped out loud that his enthusiastic attitude would be a “contagious” one.

If you can understand players trying to jump-start enthusiasm in a cavernous stadium void of fans — even though these joyful acts are blatantly flying in the face of the new guidelines — it is much harder to forgive the boneheaded decisions to hit the town amidst a pandemic. Several members of the Miami Marlins did just that during the season’s opening week, and, you guessed it — contracted COVID-19.

Rumors surfaced that the players had invaded a strip club, and although this is unverified, it is not a stretch to believe that they unwisely went out seeking diversion. CEO and part-owner of the Marlins Derek Jeter has since said it is unclear where the players were infected.

It could’ve been before the start of the official season. They played an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves on July 22 in Georgia, where the governor had issued an executive order essentially undoing local mask mandates across the state.

Nonetheless, 18 players on their 30-man roster have tested positive to date. Their games with the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals then had to be postponed. As collateral damage, since the Marlins had taken on the Philadelphia Phillies, the Phillies had to postpone their ensuing games, given the concern of their players contracting the virus from the Marlins –which in turn affects the Phillies’ opponents.

Apparently, making a push to take over the league lead, the St. Louis Cardinals have had 17 players and staffers test positive and had to scrap their series against the Detroit Tigers and, most recently, the Pittsburgh Pirates. (The Cards’ players transgression? They allegedly visited a casino.)

Also, staff members for the Phillies have tested positive. As of this writing, about 30 Major League games have been postponed. If this tangled trend continues, Commissioner Rob Manfred warns that we may have to toss the fast-crumbling season into the trash can and close the lid.

To say this is disappointing for fans is an understatement. To say it makes us want to punch a wall is more like it. You ballplayers wanted to play. We wanted to watch you. So why are you now carelessly wrecking the season before it has a chance to take hold?

Recklessness like this from teenagers holding house parties is one thing, but grown millionaires with a job to accomplish? Baseball has seen seasons completed even through the 1918 pandemic, the Depression years and two world wars, with rosters depleted due to able-bodied men joining the armed forces.

Earlier this summer, when players and owners were still hammering out terms, one idea kicked around was to play the games in spring training ballparks in Phoenix, with all 30 teams quarantined in nearby hotels. Players rejected this “bubble” approach, saying they didn’t want to be away from their families and friends for that long.

Well, the players got their way, but the fans may suffer for it in the end. A two-month stretch is just a chunk of the 162-game haul that constitutes a normal regular season — they seriously can’t hunker down for that long?

If the opening couple of weeks is any indication, the answer is sadly obvious. I don’t know what shenanigans the Marlins or Cardinals found themselves in, but I would tell them and all other players to just stop it, please, before it’s too late.

The bubble strategy has worked well so far for the NBA, NHL, MLS and WNBA, who have all either successfully resumed or begun their seasons. More than ever I am now convinced it should’ve been a pillar of baseball’s 2020 plan. (One digression: Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers left the NBA bubble when after attending his grandfather’s funeral; he succumbed to a craving for tasty chicken wings at a strip club, of all places. Though he immediately quarantined upon returning, it’s amazing the number of players that regard strip clubs as a place of solace during a pandemic.)

As more ballplayers act irresponsibly and contract the virus, some healthy players may pack their gloves and bats and just walk away while they can. Veteran Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets made news recently by suddenly opting out of the 2020 season after a handful of games, due to concerns over COVID-19.

We must shut the barn door before all the horses have bolted, and quick. I’m calling for everyone on and off the field to follow the rules or dish out punishment if they are broken. This means you, umpires, as you should issue stiff warnings for players spitting on the field or even hugging.

This means you, coaches and managers, as you should properly discipline your players and keep them in line, even if it means slapping them with fines for not wearing their masks. And this certainly means you, players, as you must find the will to obey common-sense rules and stay safe, so you can accomplish what we all want — a full season, complete with playoffs and the crowning of a champion.

Maybe you have to be shepherded from the plane to the hotel to the stadium in every single city, then back to the hotel and the plane. Perhaps grandmas armed with rolling pins have to stand guard at hotel room doors nightly to discourage any side trips. If this is what it takes to fulfill the season and give us hope during such an arduous summer, then so be it. But please don’t burst our bubble.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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