Amid reported optimism, Dr. Fauci says ‘we're not ready' for baseball to return


While folks across the baseball world are, reportedly, suddenly more optimistic that there will be a 2020 season of some kind, word from the nation’s most prominent public health official shows the reality standing in the way of safely resuming play.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hammered home the caveat that’s been attached to all the plans Major League Baseball is discussing to salvage the indefinitely paused campaign.

“I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Fauci told James Wagner and Ken Belson. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet. We might be ready, depending upon what the sport is. But right now, we’re not.”

Reports this week from ESPN’s Jeff Passan, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale told of feelings among the league’s stakeholders that baseball happening in 2020 is a near certainty. Discussions of playing a quarantined season in a singular location have morphed into playing in teams’ home ballparks, even if there are no fans present. Nightengale outlined a plan in which the season would begin in late June or early July, or about two months from now.

That optimism, reportedly, stems from certain states across the country relaxing social-distancing measures in an attempt to relieve their economic pressures.

But baseball being allowed to return in certain states and it being a good idea to do so are two different things.

It all comes down to testing, which currently is not widely available or available at the level it needs to be, from a public-health standpoint, in the United States. Baseball’s plans to restart the season are contingent on testing being widely available. Players, coaches, front office staff, stadium staff, transportation staff, hotel staff, food service staff and the small armies of workers needed to broadcast games on television would all need to be regularly tested to make sure the virus does not spread.

If baseball jumps the gun and attempts to restart its season without those dramatic testing measures in place, players and everyone else involved would be at risk.

“We’re going to have to see: Is it doable? Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,” Fauci told Wagner and Belson. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’”

And baseball could not — perhaps it’s better said that it should not — implement such a massive amount of testing while the general population does not have similar access.

“I hope when we get to that point, when we’re going to try and get the sports figures tested,” Fauci said, “then we will have enough tests so that anybody who needs a test can get a test.”

More drastic plans that included quarantining the entire season in one or a few locations have seemingly been abandoned in favor of those that would allow teams to play in their home ballparks. Talk of making sure every team would be within an hour’s drive of each other has yielded to that of reduced travel but travel that would still cover large geographic regions.

Players, including faces of baseball like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, as well as White Sox batterymates James McCann and Steve Cishek, voiced their distaste with the more restrictive proposals, ones that would keep players sequestered from their families and the rest of society, in general, for months.

“That would definitely be a major concern,” Cishek said earlier this month. “It kind of sits in the back of your mind where if they ask us to be away from our families for the duration of the season, I would have a hard time agreeing to play under those circumstances.

“I want to be with my family for the whole season. Not only do I not want to be away from them, I just wouldn't feel right leaving my family in the middle of what we would call a pandemic. I just don't think I would be a good husband or dad in that regard.

“Right now, it would be looking like I don't think I could do that.”

Fauci, however, laid out that if that’s the only safe way to play, it might be the only way to play.

“I’m not saying this is the way to go, but you want to at least consider having players, if they’re going to play, play in front of a TV camera without people in the audience,” he said. “And then test all the players and make sure they’re negative and keep them in a place where they don’t have contact with anybody on the outside who you don’t know whether they’re positive or negative.

“That’s going to be logistically difficult, but there’s at least the possibility of doing that. In other words, we said that for baseball, get the players in Major League Baseball, get a couple of cities and a couple of hotels, get them tested and keep them segregated. I know it’s going to be difficult for them not to be out in society, but that may be the price you pay if you want to play ball.”

The reports of baseball’s new optimistic outlook for a 2020 season made sure to include these caveats, ones that pointed to the necessity of widespread testing, and also made sure to mention that the league has not locked any plans into place, pointing out that what the season will look like is still a complete mystery.

But what’s created the reported optimism, the relaxing of social-distancing measures in certain states across the country, is motivated by economics and not necessarily what’s best for public health. As certain politicains and pundits have argued that removing social-distancing measures and allowing businesses to operate without restriction is what’s best for the economy, the number of cases and deaths have continued to rise.

In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order was recently extended through the end of May. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday that while she could envision a world in which baseball might return to Chicago this summer, she added that it was “a ways away.” Tuesday, the state announced more than 2,000 newly reported cases and nearly 150 new deaths.

It's difficult to read those conditions as appropriate for baseball’s imminent return, and Fauci’s words point to the laundry list of challenges the league will face in trying to salvage its season in a safe manner.

Certainly all baseball fans hope the situation across the country and the world will evolve to a point where it is safe to play the game in 2020. But as McCann said earlier this month:

“If we rush things, we possibly create a recipe for disaster.”

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