Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, is a baseball nut. His voice fills with excitement talking about the Nationals’ World Series title. His coronavirus mask is covered with Nationals logos. An autographed Patrick Corbin jersey hangs in his D.C. home.
And even though a deadly coronavirus outbreak has hammered the United States and caused Major League Baseball to reduce this season’s schedule to 60 games played in stadiums with no fans, hope springs eternal with Fauci.
Fauci would give anything to eat a hot dog and drink a cold beer at Nationals Park this season.
He doesn’t predict that will happen, but said he could see a scenario where fans attend games in some cities later in the season, which is set to start July 23 with the Yankees in Washington.
“Sometimes when you project, people take it out of context,’’ Fauci said during an interview with MASNsports.com. “But if a level of infection in a city is really low, then you can have people in the stands. You can’t fill it up 100 percent. You can do it where you can space out the fans. It’s at least open for consideration.’‘
Fauci, 79, is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health. President George W. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, gave Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian. He has an international reputation for his work to eradicate diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola.
He’s a member of President Trump’s task force on the unrelenting coronavirus and MLB called him when it was developing safety protocol for the 2020 season.
Fauci said baseball’s return could be a distraction during uncertain times: “You’ve got to go on with your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of all the pleasures.
“Obviously, we are taking this outbreak seriously. We all want to do our part to curtail the spread of the outbreak. That’s why you hear me and my colleagues say that we need to wear masks, physical distancing to protect ourselves and others, avoid close contact, crowds and wash your hands often.’‘
MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed to a 108-page operations manual for safety protocols that includes everything from no handshakes and no spitting to avoiding elevators in road hotels. The new normal has been in place since spring training 2.0 began the first week in July.
Other sports plan to re-open within a bubble environment. The NHL plans to continue its season in the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Toronto. The NBA hopes to play games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando alongside MLS teams. The WNBA will play in a Bradenton, Fla., bubble.
MLB players - such as the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman, the Giants’ Buster Posey and the Dodgers’ David Price - have decided not to play this season.
MLB teams will travel from city to city.
“It’s tough to make a comparison,’’ Fauci said. “You just want a prudent, safe way that doesn’t propagate the outbreak. You want to make sure that safety trumps everything.’‘
Fauci said players shouldn’t have to worry about physical distancing when they are in game situations. He said that a catcher, crouched between an umpire and batter, a first baseman holding a runner or two players colliding trying to catch a popup shouldn’t have to worry.
“If they (MLB) do it the way they say they are going to do it, every player out there should have tested negative,’’ Fauci said. “If you are testing before they go on the field, you can assume everybody’s negative. It doesn’t make any difference if a guy is holding someone on first base.’‘
Players in the dugout will have physical distance - and even sit in the stands. Fauci said that’s an extra layer of protection.
The germ for Fauci’s love of baseball started in Brooklyn, N.Y., when his dad brought him to Yankee Stadium. He saw the legendary Joe DiMaggio play a game during the final days of his career and that made “Joltin’ Joe” Fauci’s favorite player.
“I’m one of the few people around that have seen Joe DiMaggio play,’’ Fauci said.
Even though Fauci grew up in Brooklyn, he was a Yankees fan and had never-ending arguments with his neighborhood friends comparing Dodgers and Yankees.
Who was the better catcher, Roy Campanella or Yogi Berra? Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle? PeeWee Reese or Phil Rizzuto?
What is the deal with Yankees fans in Brooklyn?
“Unless you lived in New York, people don’t appreciate that,’’ Fauci said. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but I was a Yankees fan. I was not an anomaly. A lot of people in Brooklyn were Yankees fans. Almost half my friends in my neighborhood were Yankees fans. The other half were Dodgers fans.’‘
As a kid, Fauci played second base and shortstop. His dream was to play shortstop for the Yankees.
These days, “I relate to Trea Turner,’’ Fauci said, referring to the Nationals shortstop.
As a lifelong civil servant, his career has been in Washington, so he’s drifted away from the Yankees. He used to drive to Baltimore to cheer for the Orioles, but when the Nationals started in D.C. in 2005, he was hooked. He said there’s nothing like a hometown team.
“I have to say that I love the Nats,’’ Fauci said. “Win or lose, come hell or high water, I’m a Nats fan. Last season was phenomenal, the Nats showing amazing character.
“When you see a team get behind by a run or two, you see them get depressed. When the Nats get behind, I feel better because I know they are going to come back and win.
“Max (Scherzer) and Stras (Stephen Strasburg), you’ve got to love them. Then we got Corbin. Then, all of a sudden, we’ve got these young guys in the outfield. Juan Soto. Who knew? He’s going to be a superstar. Victor Robles, Adam Eaton. You can go right down the line.’‘
Fauci wore his Nationals mask to testify in the U.S. Senate on June 30.
“Senators were amazed and cheered me on because several of them were Nats fans,’’ he said.
Fauci attends about a dozen games a season at Nationals Park, and he’d go to more if time allowed. He watches 40 or 50 Nationals games on TV.
“I love the rhythm of the game,’’ Fauci said. “Some people think it is too slow. It isn’t. Sit back and watch it evolve. On a clear, warm night, there’s really no better place to be than Nats Park.’‘
The coronavirus outbreak will have the final say on whether Fauci - and baseball fans across the country - will get to experience live baseball during the next three months.
“If they don’t allow us in the stands, I’ll make myself a hot dog, pour a cold beer and watch it on TV,” he said.