The toughest assignment in 2020 sports has nothing to do with stopping Patrick Mahomes on third-and-one or pitching to Mike Trout with the bases loaded. No, the toughest assignment is trying to figure out how to keep those super-duper stars and others on the field in this era of COVID-19. Playing games during the coronavirus pandemic is a logistical nightmare. It already has upended the best laid plans of mice and men. And it portends to get worse before it gets better.
Sixteen of 302 NBA players recently tested positive for COVID-19. That’s 5.3 percent, about the average for the general population. Saying they didn’t want to put their families at risk, several players have opted not to play when the NBA resumes with the start of its postseason at the end of July. It will be interesting to see how many others decide to sit this one out. Imagine the ripple effect if LeBron James were to take his ball and go home? King James is all in at this point, but this bears watching.
The idea of NBA teams “bubbling” in place at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., seems solid, until you read about how the number of coronavirus cases in the Sunshine State has soared to alarming heights in recent days. Despite the exhaustive protocols, sequestered players, coaches and trainers still could be exposed to the virus via the workers who clean their rooms, prepare their meals and keep the lights and air conditioning on in the arena. Yes, these folks will be tested frequently, but there are scores of harrowing stories about asymptomatic carriers infecting others.
Major college football players have returned to campuses throughout the country, and in places such as Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina, positive tests have taken off like a ball off a punter’s foot. Clemson University just reported 14 more cases, raising its total to 37.
No sport has gone unscathed, including professional golf, an outdoor activity built for social distancing. Cameron Champ withdrew from last week’s Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., after becoming the second golfer on tour to test positive. Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner, and Graeme McDowell also said “sayonara” after their caddies contracted coronavirus. PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan decided to allow the tournament to proceed, but expressed concerns about future Tour events.
Despite calls from the NFL Players Association to stop voluntary group workouts, players continue to ignore union leaders. No one has been more defiant than new Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who has been conducting daily passing sessions with his new receivers at a Florida high school field. As mentioned, Florida is a COVID-19 hot spot. Brady may be the GOAT, but that doesn’t make him invulnerable to a disease that’s killed more than 126,000 Americans.
Believe me, I want to see sports back, too, but not at any cost. I’m still skeptical about Major League Baseball or the NBA completing their truncated seasons. The college football season is in serious jeopardy, and I wouldn’t automatically assume the NFL will be able to kick off as planned. I feel badly for Buffalo Bills fans, because, for the first time in two decades, their beloved team was going to enter the season as the favorite to win its division. Now, there’s a real chance there may not be a season. And if there is one, Bills Mafia won’t be able to watch it in person. “Sadly,’’ as a friend said to me, “that’s just so Buffalo.”
The signing of Cam Newton was a low-risk, potentially high-reward move by the New England Patriots. They got the former NFL MVP for the league minimum, and even if Newton realizes all his incentives the contract will still be a bargain. If he’s a bust, it won’t cost Bill Belichick much. Some New Englanders have gotten carried away and are even talking Super Bowl. I still think the Bills will win the division (if there is a season), but if Newton’s healthy, it could make the AFC East a lot more interesting.
As I write this, Major League Baseball continues to leave the Rochester Red Wings and the rest of minor-league baseball in the dark, and that’s a shame. It’s almost certain there won’t be a minor-league season this summer, but it would be nice if MLB’s powers-that-be could at least inform their minor-league affiliates. That way, the Wings and other clubs could plan more non-baseball events at their ballparks so they could mitigate at least some of the enormous financial losses they’ve incurred during this season-less season.
MLB was hell-bent on contracting at least 42 minor-league clubs, and they’ll more than get their wish, thanks to the coronavirus. I wish MLB would put its contraction plans on hold for a year, and allow teams like the Batavia Muckdogs to play a farewell season in 2021. But that’s probably a pipe dream on my part.
Canada planned to require visitors from the United States to quarantine for two weeks upon entering the country. These restrictions would be problematic for opponents of the Toronto Blue Jays. It appears those rules may be lifted for visiting MLB teams. But just to be on the safe side, the Blue Jays have explored contingency plans, including playing home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. Would have been cool watching Major League Baseball played just down the Thruway. Then, again, we wouldn’t have been able to see it in person because of the fan ban.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.