Baseball season’s looming strikeout shows importance of following COVID-19 safety guidelines

August 4, 2020

It’s likely that this baseball season will end up more off-course than Dr. Fauci’s Opening Day first pitch.

I had mixed feelings as Opening Day 2020 for Major League Baseball approached. While happy to see the return of real baseball, as opposed to reruns or computer-simulated games, I was getting used to telling friends that this was the longest that the Mets had ever made it without losing a game.

Patients who share my love for baseball (though their love usually is for the Red Sox or Yankees, not the Mets) asked me if I thought they would make it this year. Only this time it wasn’t the Mets they were asking about – it was baseball in general.

Those questions were well-founded, given the recent news that 13 members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for COVID-19, causing a cancellation of a four-game series. The previous week, theMiami Marlins’ schedule was cancelled for a week and other teams’ matchups changed because 20 players and coaches had tested positive for COVID-19. According to one report, some of the players violated protocols to control the spread of infection by gathering at the hotel bar and going out.

When the plan to play a baseball season was announced, there was skepticism over the ability of MLB to control, much less avoid altogether, the virus. Unlike the NBA and NHL, baseball’s players and staff were not sequestered in a “bubble” that restricted contact with the outside world. (Although that structure is not foolproof either, as a member of the LA Clippers showed when he reportedly stopped in an adult club for wings on the way back to the hotel from an approved leave to attend a funeral, ending up quarantined as a result.)

It should not be surprising that professional sports players are subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of us, including the virulence of SARS-CoV-2. Frequent testing does not make up for masking, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and common sense. While there have been scenes of “responsible” behavior on the field, such as when Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo gave an opposing player hand sanitizer, we’ve also seen bench clearing brawls with players yelling in each other’s faces, as well as crowding in the dugouts, high-fives after home runs, and other actions that will raise R values more reliably than they will increase batting averages. And let’s not forget the trips to bars, clubs, and other risky venues.

Not that baseball players are the only ones ignoring the experts’ advice to distance and cover their faces. Even doctors can be careless. Just recently, we learned of 18 anesthesiology residents in a Florida hospital who were infected from attending a party.

When our patients request or we offer them testing because they engaged in high-risk behaviors, we counsel them that while testing is important, not engaging in high-risk behaviors in the first place is even more important – and more effective.

As much as I’m having trouble adjusting to the cardboard cutouts in the stands, the empty stadiums, and the canned crowd noises, it’s great to see baseball return. It will be even better when we can start attending games again. But that won’t happen unless everyone follows the basics of protecting ourselves and each other from COVID-19.

Regardless of your politics during this pandemic, we should all be able to follow preventive measures that work. But if we insist on ignoring sound advice, it’s more likely that the baseball season will end up more off course than Dr. Fauci’s Opening Day first pitch.

Ejnes is an internist in Cranston, RI, chair-emeritus of the American College of Physicians Board of Regents, chair-elect of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a life-long New York Mets fan.