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Baseball must act: Cancel spring training games or play without fans

Everyone in sports, of course, is intensely aware of the coronavirus. And everyone is trying to be sensible. Which may be a huge mistake. Faced with a virus with such asymmetric outcomes, a “balanced” response ignores the enormous difference in how our world may look in a few weeks.

Neither the Nats, nor any MLB team, has decided to play its spring training games in empty parks as, in my opinion, they should — immediately.

On Wednesday, the Houston Astros and Nats had an exhibition season “rematch” of the World Series. They drew close to a full house, announced at 5,624, everybody shoulder-to-shoulder. I have never enjoyed watching a cheering crowd at a ballgame so little.

I’m alone on this. But I doubt I will be for long. Disease has its own timetable; it doesn’t negotiate. For now, sports are being impacted severely only after the fact — when the coronavirus is winning and the public is seriously scared — like a Seattle clampdown forbidding gatherings of more than 250 people, or in San Francisco, where the Golden State Warriors say they will play their NBA games without fans.

MLB’s decision about spring training may just be a warmup — but a useful one — for much tougher decisions to come as Opening Day approaches. No major sport even approaches the number of fans, sitting at close quarters, as MLB, which averages close to 30,000 fans a game for 81 home games per team per year. In all, MLB draws about 70 million fans a year to its parks — about 10 million more people than the NFL, NBA and NHL combined.

The time for MLB to act is now. Baseball, caught amid several integrity of the game issues, has a chance to do the right thing at the right time; while it would lose some money, the game would gain far more in respect and restored stature.

Either cancel spring training games and play intrasquad games, or play without fans in the stands until Opening Day in two weeks. Don’t wait to see what happens. Don’t wait until we all see more nationwide test results or until an outbreak erupts near a spring training camp and, perhaps, health officials trace back the origins of a community outbreak to a trivial spring training game.

These games are meaningless. Revenue from them is relatively small. The average crowd at a spring training game (in 2017) was 6,892. But that is still almost seven times bigger than the largest crowd that is currently allowed in Santa Clara County, Calif., where the San Jose Sharks of the NHL, among other teams in that high-infection area, will have to play to empty arenas.

If you want to find a crowd with the most at-risk demographic — aside from a cruise liner or a retirement facility — it might be a spring training game with its high percentage of senior citizens and retirees. The chances of death, very low at younger ages, increases with age. After 60, you shouldn’t be flying if it’s not necessary. The average age of fans at spring training games (in 2018) was 52.

MLB should shut its spring training gates — and thank its lucky stars it still has two weeks to get more data before deciding what to do about regular season games. The major leagues of Japan and South Korea have pushed back the starts of their seasons indefinitely. On Wednesday, the Giants canceled their final spring training game scheduled for March 24 back home in San Francisco.

Here in gorgeous, warm Florida at spring training, the coronavirus seems invisible — out of sight, out of mind. That’s the problem. It is invisible.

The places you see covid-19 — or its shadow, like the Invisible Man’s outline traced against a wall by a flashlight beam — is everywhere outside of ballparks.

Flying here Tuesday, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport was almost ghostly. There was no security line, only me. Probably just a quiet time of day, I thought. The Southwest Airlines person who always says: “Don’t pass up an empty middle seat. This will be a full flight,” said: “Don’t take a middle seat. There’s plenty of room.” For the rental car, for the hotel check-in, no line. Wednesday morning, at the free breakfast buffet — usually busy — I was the only person. Would I like 100 bagels?

Just three days ago, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable idea for a 72-year-old man in excellent health to sit in an airplane for three hours to come here. How can you pass up spring training the year after a Washington team wins its first World Series in 95 years? What are the odds you’ll regret it — tiny, right?

But I’m changing my mind, fast. Maybe the email from a former president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, a doctor who is working with coronavirus patients, was the whisper in my ear. In my Monday online chat, I said I was going to Florida. He said he wanted have a friendly word with me. I didn’t respond because I figured he wasn’t going to say what I wanted to hear.

That’s the other problem. Nobody wants to hear bad news. Nobody wants to have their fun canceled or even delayed or their job interrupted. So, we deny.

This week, both Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton have said how much they would hate to play in parks with no fans. They wouldn’t be as motivated or play as well. Sean Doolittle volunteered how much he would hate to think of an Opening Day — after a World Series triumph — with no fans or, the next day, a ring-presentation game in a fan vacuum. Every Nationals fan can imagine the sense of loss.

But this is a moment when understanding orders of magnitude is of paramount importance. We are balancing risks-vs.-rewards during an incipient pandemic.

“I wash my hands 147 times a day. I’m thinking about wearing a [hand] sanitizer on my belt,” Martinez said. The Nats have also put their locker room off limits to the media and any nonessential personnel, as they should.

The Nats, like every other team, are incredibly protective of their players.

But what about their fans, what about all of MLB’s fans — those roughly 7,000-per-game of them at 16 games a day in spring training at an average age of 52?

Who’s worrying about them?

“It’s one thing to be a 30-year-old athlete. You get something like the flu and you get better,” Doolittle said. “But what about the older people. Those people don’t count as much?”

In a couple of weeks, MLB will have a different set of decisions — perhaps difficult, or perhaps painfully obvious — about whether to delay the start of the season or play to empty houses. The NHL and NBA have the same issue. “What about March Madness?” said Doolittle, a huge hoops fan, almost plaintively.

Within an hour, the NCAA said games would be all but closed to fans.

Our hearts get in the way of our heads — even the smart heads. Baseball needs to get past its idyllic image of spring training and its place in the natural rhythm of the game. Like the rest of us, MLB needs to face the reality we have, not the one we would prefer.

Most of all, at this very moment, MLB needs to understand that it has an average of more than 110,000 fans a day, many of them in an endangered demographic, sitting side-by-side, watching games that don’t count in any standings, soaking up the sun.

And, against much wise medical opinion, perhaps also soaking up who knows what else.

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