WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Seventy-two hours ago, the notion of closing clubhouses to reporters and non-essential team personnel was laughable. Then it happened.
Forty-eight hours ago, the suggestion that Major League Baseball games in Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland would have to be relocated or played in empty ballparks sounded ludicrous. Then it happened.
Twenty-four hours ago, the possibility of the MLB season not starting on time due to the coronavirus pandemic seemed implausible. It hasn’t happened yet - at least not as of 11 p.m. Wednesday - but it sure seems plausible now, doesn’t it?
Is it safe now to say this virus and the ramifications of it are moving faster than we can keep up with?
This much certainly is safe to say: Nobody has any way of knowing what the situation is going to be two days from now, let alone two weeks from now when 30 clubs are supposed to open the 2020 season.
The Nationals are supposed to fly home March 22 after their Grapefruit League finale against the Cardinals. They were supposed to hold their annual Welcome Home Gala on March 23, but the club announced Wednesday that the event has been postponed. They’re supposed to play an exhibition game against their own prospects March 24 at Nationals Park, but with the D.C. Department of Health recommending all non-essential mass gatherings of 1,000 or more people be called off, it sure doesn’t seem like the game will take place.
Then the Nationals are supposed to travel to New York to face the Mets on opening day, a March 26 showdown between Jacob deGrom and either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg one of the biggest highlights of the MLB schedule. They’re supposed to play a three-game weekend series at Citi Field, then head back south to Miami for three games with the Marlins.
Next comes the main event: the opening homestand, dubbed “Champions Week” by the organization. The April 2 home opener vs. the Mets will feature the 2019 World Series championship banner-raising. On April 4, they’ll present the players, coaches and others with their championship rings. More special events are planned through the rest of that six-game homestand.
Is it possible all of that will take place inside an empty ballpark?
“I don’t want to raise a banner without fans,” Davey Martinez said Wednesday when the subject was raised, still sounding more hypothetical than realistic.
Next up is a West Coast road trip, to Los Angeles (April 10-12) and Seattle (April 13-14). As of Wednesday night, there was no official directive on sporting events in Southern California, only the Bay Area to the north. But Washington governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on all large group events in the state through the end of March. It certainly wouldn’t surprise anyone now if that ban extends two more weeks.
The Nationals also visit San Francisco in the season’s first month (April 24-26). Conditions there will need to improve drastically and quickly for that series to go on as planned with fans in attendance.
Of course, all of this assumes any MLB games will be played at all in the next month. And at this moment, nobody should assume that.
We’re living through the most rapid-fire, changing-dynamics story of many of our lives. It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next, because the moment you think you have it figured out, some other bombshell is dropped.
The NCAA is going to hold March Madness in empty arenas? That was the story Wednesday afternoon. It may no longer be the story this morning after Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg got ill during his team’s Big Ten Tournament game, went to the hospital and left his players quarantined in their locker room for roughly an hour.
The NBA and NHL are going to proceed with fans in the stands? Not after the Jazz-Thunder game was suddenly called off moments before tip-off after center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. Shortly after that, the NBA suspended its entire season.
The NHL said it was still evaluating its plan and would make an announcement in the morning. Suspension of the hockey season sure seems inevitable now.
MLB, meanwhile, stayed silent throughout Wednesday. The fact baseball still has two weeks to go before its regular season commences gives the sport a bit of time to sort this all out and make an informed decision. Then again, exhibition games are being played here in Florida and in Arizona, with media banned from clubhouses but fans welcome to sit in the stands. How much longer can that continue?
These are major decisions, both business decisions and public health decisions. Sadly, the business decisions seem to be taking initial precedence over the public health decisions at the moment, though that may now be changing.
In the span of only a week, we’ve seen one sports league follow another in addressing this crisis. The first step is always the toughest, but once it happens the next steps seem to become much easier to take.
The NBA season officially is on hold. The NHL season and NCAA Tournament are probably up next. And MLB should probably follow in line after that.
As much as we love sports - and, truth be told, as much as we could really use them to distract us right now - they absolutely should take a back seat to the health and safety of the citizens of our world.
It feels like it’s time to call off the games.
At least, that’s what it feels like at this particular moment. As we’ve painfully learned in the last week, the world is changing rapidly, and we’re struggling to keep up with it.