“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”
That was the tagline catch-phrase written by Peter Benchley to accompany the first-ever true summer blockbuster motion picture, 1975’s “Jaws”, which was adapted from Benchley’s hit 1974 novel of the same name. A similar phrase could be used to describe the first weekend of play in Major League Baseball for the 2021 season.
Last year, the 2020 MLB season was wilted down from the usual 162 games to 60 thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic outbreak. But for fans of Major League Baseball, a sense of normalcy was beginning to return to our national pastime during spring training 2021. Fans were allowed to return to Florida and Arizona ballparks after being banned a year ago. Sure, it was with limited capacities, socially distanced seating arrangements, fans wearing masks, and other safety measures in place. But the cheering, bustle, natural crowd noise, and electricity supplied by “live” fans was back.
All spring long, baseball announced tremendous results from the ‘COVID-19 Health Monitoring & Testing Plan’ of players, coaches, and other team personnel. The report released by MLB on March 26 continued to reveal such results: 78,227 tests conducted, with 33 total positive tests (25 players, 8 staff members); a 0.04% positive rate. And so, with a virtually unaffected exhibition schedule in the books, baseball prepared for what promised to be a joyful Opening Day. And for 26 teams playing in 13 different cities across the country, it was exactly that.
In Philadelphia, the host Phillies walked-off the division-rival and three-time defending NL East champion Atlanta Braves. In Detroit, 38-year-old Miguel Cabrera blasted the 488th home run of his future Hall of Fame career. Two of the greatest pitchers of this generation, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, delivered polar opposite performances. Kershaw was ripped at mile-high Coors Field by the host Rockies while Greinke produced a gem in Oakland.
In Boston, the host Red Sox game with the visiting Baltimore Orioles was postponed due to a forecast of inclement weather. Turned out there was no such inclement weather when the actual game time arrived. But down in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. the teams and fans only wished that the host Nationals game with the New York Mets was called off over such a relatively trivial issue.
In a nightmarish flashback to a year ago, the entire weekend opening series between the Nats and Mets would end up postponed due to a COVID outbreak in the Washington organization. The coronavirus outbreak caused 10 Nationals players to be placed on the COVID Injured List, four of them actually testing positive for COVID-19 and the rest put into quarantine due to direct exposure.
The outbreak would cause the Nationals to also postpone Monday’s game with Atlanta, with that game made up as part of a doubleheader on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the organization scrambled to add veterans, including free agent catcher Jonathan Lucroy, to help fill out their roster for this week’s games.
When asked his thoughts on the situation, Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez pragmatically stated “We’re still in the midst of a pandemic. We really are, ya know. We can’t forget that, what this pandemic has done. Many, many lives in our country and other countries. So, we gotta be careful.”
Three approved vaccines in the United States to date have been distributed for months now, with the numbers of those successfully vaccinated rapidly rising with each week. In fact, I received my own second shot of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday, and by April 20th will be considered as “fully vaccinated” against the virus.
MLB does not mandate vaccinations of players. However, they are now trying to encourage it as much as possible. Earlier this week the league began an education campaign to get players on board who may be balking at receiving a vaccination.
MLB has stated that stricter protocols will be relaxed once a team reaches 85 percent of Tier 1 individuals being vaccinated. In a memo sent to each of the 30 ball clubs, the league stated that those who are able to reach the 85 percent threshold will no longer have to wear masks or tracking devices in the dugout and bullpen, may restore clubhouse amenities, and all vaccinated players, coaches and staff members would be allowed to eat in restaurants.
There are a number of further benefits for teams reaching that 85% vaccinated mark. They could bring families with them on road trips and would be allowed to gather without masks in hotel rooms. They also would have the option of decreasing testing to twice per week and will not have to quarantine should they come within close contact to someone diagnosed with COVID-19, as long as they themselves were asymptomatic.
The message is clear – get vaccinated as soon as you are able, ballplayer or no. And another message should also be heard loud and clear. As Martinez said, we are still in the midst of this pandemic. It is not over yet. We are getting there but still need to be careful. The Washington Nationals were example number one for the 2021 Major League Baseball season. Hopefully, there won’t be any more of these postponements.