After a four-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball kicks off its regular season Thursday with a 60-game schedule set to be played solely in U.S. stadiums.
While many fans are anticipating the return of the game nicknamed the national pastime, there are widespread concerns about the safety of resuming a major sports league at a time when the United States is in the midst of a surge in coronavirus infections with several of the hotspots home to multiple teams.
Among the top ten states with the highest per-capita increases in new cases in the past week are Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Texas and California, which together host 11 of the 30 MLB teams.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is set to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Washington as the defending World Series champion Nationals host the New York Yankees in the league’s opening game. Fauci has been seen often in recent weeks wearing a Nationals mask.
"Dr. Fauci has been a true champion for our country during the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout his distinguished career, so it is only fitting that we honor him as we kick off the 2020 season and defend our World Series Championship title,” the Nationals said in a statement.
The Nationals had to get a waiver from the District of Columbia in order to be allowed to host games because local coronavirus restrictions would otherwise not allow such an event to take place. There will be no fans in the stands, something that will be a common sight throughout the league.
Major League Baseball’s sole Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays, is not being allowed to play its games at home, forcing it to search for a U.S. stadium for those games instead.
Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino cited the frequent cross-border travel that would be involved with the neighboring United States.
“We understand professional sports are important to the economy and to Canadians,” he said Saturday. “At the same time, our government will continue to take decisions at the border on the basis of the advice of our health experts in order to protect the health and safety of all Canadians."
The Pittsburgh Pirates said Monday they were in talks with the Blue Jays about Toronto playing its home games in Pittsburgh this season. Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins has said if the team is unable to secure another Major League park for its games, the most likely backup would be playing at its minor league affiliate stadium in Buffalo, New York.
Unlike the National Basketball Association, which is housing all of its teams in Orlando, Florida for the rest of its season with strict rules about outside contacts, MLB teams will still travel to other cities to play and players are only being cautioned to practice social distancing and avoid situations that may increase their risk of coronavirus exposure.
Players will be administered coronavirus tests every other day and temperature checks twice a day. On the field, they are banned from spitting, celebrating with high-fives or similar contact, and any players who are unlikely to take part in that day’s game will have to sit in the stands spaced at least six feet apart instead of hanging out in the dugout.
The 60-game schedule does feature mostly games within a team’s division, with the rest scheduled to take place in its geographic region in order to reduce overall travel. For example, Washington will play all of its road games in eastern cities Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Tampa Bay and wherever Toronto ends up.
Several high-profile players have chosen to use the opt-out rights in the agreement on return to play reached between team owners and the union that represents players.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jordan Hicks, Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis and Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond are among those who will not be playing.
The agreement also institutes a few changes to the games themselves. Teams in the National League that typically have pitchers also participate on offense will instead utilize the designated hitter position that is already standard for American League teams. Also, when any regular season games go into extra innings, each team will begin its turn on offense with a player already on second base.
The regular concludes September 27, followed by the league’s usual playoff format.