MLB can only watch as COVID-19 impacts rest of sports world

By sheer virtue of timing, Major League Baseball was the first major North American sport to return to play during the pandemic. July 2020 feels like a lifetime ago at this point, but it's worth remembering just how uncertain everything was as ballplayers took the field for the first time in empty stadiums.

We didn't know if the strict protocols put into place were going to allow for games to be played without the spread of the virus. We didn't know if clubhouses would become petri dishes for COVID-19, even if everyone wore masks and kept their distance as required.

And when both the Marlins and Cardinals suffered early-season outbreaks, there were legitimate cries from some about shutting the sport down again. The risks felt too great, the unknowns remained too troubling.

Baseball didn't shut down, of course, even though it was on the verge of it at one point. The 60-game season was completed, albeit with a swath of postponements and 14-inning doubleheaders to make up all of the games. An expanded postseason was played in California and Texas bubbles. The Dodgers were crowned champions.

And the rest of the sports world saw baseball serve as a guinea pig for competing through a pandemic. Football, basketball and hockey all took notice and incorporated some of baseball's protocols while instituting others of their own.

It was a bumpy road, but those first seasons back did get completed. And by the time the 2021 baseball season arrived, we were all hopeful things would look close to normal by the time it was completed.

Thumbnail image for Empty-Nationals-Park-at-Opener-Sidebar.jpgTruth be told, it kind of did. Crowds in most cities were limited in April and May, but by the summer, everyone was allowing full capacity. There were a handful of games postponed due to outbreaks - some of them impacting the Nationals - but the postseason proceeded on a normal schedule, played in home ballparks in front of overflowing crowds.

And as the dust settled on the Braves' championship run in early November, it was fair to wonder if we might be headed for a completely normal 2022 season.

Perhaps we still will. There are two months to go still before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, a full 3 1/2 months until opening day. As we've seen throughout the last two years, a lot can change in that amount of time, for better or worse.

But as we sit here in late December, the baseball industry shut down for entirely different reasons, and watch what's going on across the rest of the sports spectrum, it's hard not to start worrying again about what awaits us in the spring.

The arrival of the omicron variant, combined with cold winter weather that forces more people indoors and better fosters spread of the virus, is again throwing a wrench into sports. Three football games were postponed over the weekend, now scheduled to be made up today and Tuesday, one of them necessary after the local team saw more than 20 players placed in COVID-19 protocols. Basketball and hockey games have been postponed for similar reasons. There's talk of the upcoming Winter Olympics in China proceeding without professional hockey players participating.

It all feels so eerily familiar, doesn't it?

Which isn't to say the current situation is entirely comparable to past ones. The overwhelming majority of athletes, coaches and society as a whole are now vaccinated. Many of those who test positive never even display symptoms. There's even discussion of adjusting protocols to allow vaccinated, asymptomatic athletes to keep practicing and playing.

We're in a much better spot now than we were one year ago.

But we're not totally out of the woods yet, either. These next two months could go in any number of directions. Maybe the new surge peters out as spring approaches, and most cases prove not to be severe, paving the way for a quick return to normality. Hopefully, the opposite does not come to fruition.

Either way, all the baseball world can do is sit back and watch, hope things get better in short order and hope spring training and the 2022 season can commence as planned (assuming a new collective bargaining agreement, of course).

Back in July 2020, baseball was the guinea pig for everyone else. This time, baseball is the anxious observer on the outside looking in.

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