This hits home now. We always knew that was a possibility, if not a certainty. As the coronavirus made its merry way around Major League Baseball, infiltrating random teams and picking off games like a sniper — the Marlins, the Cardinals, the Reds — New York could hold its breath, then exhale, then say:
At least it’s not the Yankees.
At least it’s not the Mets.
Only now, it is the Mets. It is New York. And because the virus seems to have a sinister sense of irony, it strikes home on the eve of the first Subway Series of the season. Two known members of the Mets tested positive — one player, one staffer — and so Thursday’s game in Miami was postponed. Friday’s Subway Series lid-lifter was postponed, too.
It is almost certain the rest of the weekend will follow suit, because the new buzz phrase of baseball — of all sports — is this:
“An abundance of caution.”
This has been an ever-evolving part of the MLB protocol. During summer camp, players who tested positive were sent to quarantine but the practices marched on. DJ LeMahieu missed all of the summer restart for the Yankees. Aroldis Chapman has only this week returned from his bout with the virus. A few Mets tested positive in summer, quarantined, recovered, reported for duty. No games were lost.
Just before the Yankees’ Opening Day game with the Nationals in Washington on July 23, Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive. Now, it seems almost certain that Soto’s case was a false positive, but nobody knew that on opening night. And while some, notably Nats manager Dave Martinez, were visibly shaken by the news, there was never any serious thought given to canceling the game.
It wasn’t until a week later, when multiple Marlins started testing positive in Philadelphia, and the games were allowed to go on, and the numbers swelled to absurd proportions — 18 players before it was over — that MLB completely altered its approach to this. The next week, a couple of Cardinals did, too, and they went dark for more than two weeks.
All the while, New York has been spared, the only seasonal interruption an indirect one when the Yankees were supposed to visit Philadelphia after the Marlins’ outbreak. All along, baseball has done everything possible to combat the COVID-19 scourge considering it is not conducting its business in a bubble. The NBA and the NHL have both returned round after round of spotless tests because of that setup. The NFL, in its latest round of testing, had a positive rate of 0.006, helped along by a series of proactive measures that have helped make the daily football workday as bubble-like as possible.
Baseball never had a serious way to make any of this happen. There are too many players, and too few facilities. The likely bubble spots in March — Florida, Texas, Arizona — have evolved into hot spots in the summer. There is talk the playoffs might seek bubble-type refuge, and the more teams are affected, the greater the likelihood that will happen.
That’s all down the line, though.
For now, what was already going to be a surreal Subway Series — free of fans, free of atmosphere, free of any and all off-field energy — is now almost certainly to be switched, in its entirety, to a trio of doubleheaders next weekend, when the second half of the Subway Series is scheduled for Yankee Stadium.
And that, truthfully, is a best-case scenario.
Because if we’ve learned anything from this season, it is that it’s impossible to predict how any of this will shake out, in much the same way the most enigmatic of all COVID-19 puzzles is this: why some get it, why some don’t. The Phillies shared the field with the Marlins during that initial outbreak back in July, yet none of their players tested positive.
“It’s difficult,” Aaron Boone said Thursday, called back into the Yankees’ Zoom room for a second time after the news about the Mets was made public, looking ever bit as somber as the moment called for. “We know what we signed up for.”
So did baseball. And so does baseball. This has been a firewalk, quite literally, from the beginning, from before the beginning, from the moment the Nats suspected Soto had the virus and played on anyway, through the ever-evolving protocols that try to keep the train on the tracks.
In the end, there is only so much the sport can control. Marcus Stroman, on the day last week when he opted out of the season, cited the Mets’ trip to Miami as one of his concerns. Stroman lives in South Florida but it’s one thing to settle in at home there, another to travel there on business. He couldn’t have been the only one on the team — or in the sport — who harbored such worries.
And who will continue to do so.
For now we await what’s to become of the Mets, what’s to become of their season. Time was, a baseball team’s chief concern was combatting the kind of miserable stretch the Yankees have experienced, one that continued Thursday with Gleyber Torres and James Paxton both winding up in MRI tubes. That was then.
Now, baseball cities wait for the virus, lurking like a sniper on a rooftop, to visit them. This time it was New York. This time, it’s home.