Wow, that didn’t take long. Just five days into the Major League Baseball season, reality arrived like an Aroldis Chapman 100 mph fastball to the ribs. News that 11 Miami Marlins players and two coaches had tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday resulted in the cancellation of three games involving four different teams and sent shock waves throughout the sports world and beyond.
“This thing really hits home now that you see half a team got infected going from one city to another,’’ Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said Monday. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m scared. I really am.”
After a conference call with owners and union reps, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred tried to allay fears, saying this was “not a nightmare scenario.” Perhaps not yet, but it swiftly might become one. And, if it does, an already abbreviated season could become really abbreviated. Kaput after just a handful of games. “This could put it in danger,’’ said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist. “I don’t believe they need to stop, but we need to follow this and see what happens with other teams on a day-by-day basis.”
If a $10 billion industry like Major League Baseball, operating in a controlled environment with frequent testing, is this vulnerable, how is a sport like football, where social distancing is impossible, going to pull this off? Infections were so widespread at Rutgers University and Michigan State summer practices that their entire teams are now quarantined. NFL training camps just opened, and several teams already have placed players on the special COVID-19 list. A handful of players have opted out of the season. Even Eric Sugarman, the Minnesota Vikings’ head athletic trainer and coronavirus coordinator, tested positive.
Perhaps the “bubble” approach by the NBA and NHL will work, but I’m skeptical. Knackered, bored and impatient for a more normal routine after dealing with the pandemic for months, fans longed for baseball, football, basketball and hockey to resume. But we’re starting to see the consequences of that yearning. There can be penalties for false starts.
MLB dream finally comes true in Buffalo
Bob Rich Jr. had a three-pronged plan when he purchased the moribund Buffalo Bisons in 1982. First, he wanted to revive baseball in Buffalo, no small feat considering he was inheriting a franchise that went 55-84 and attracted a total of just 77,000 fans to old War Memorial Stadium, aka the Rockpile. Second, he wanted a new ballpark built downtown, which he succeeded in getting in 1988, with the opening of 19,500-seat Pilot Field (now Sahlen Field). And, third, he wanted to bring an MLB team to Buffalo.
His first two goals were realized relatively swiftly. His third objective has taken three decades, but it appears ready to come true, albeit in a bizarre, roundabout way. All it took was a global pandemic to make it happen. After the Canadian government banned the Toronto Blue Jays from playing home games because of fears the coronavirus could be brought north of the border by visiting MLB teams, the Jays were forced to find a new home in a hurry. Striking out on deals to become co-tenants with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, the Jays turned to their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. So Sahlen Field will be their home this season, starting with the Aug. 11 opener against the Marlins — if, in fact, the season survives that long.
“I was ecstatic and I know Bob and (wife) Mindy are ecstatic, too,’’ said Mike Billoni, the former general manager whose P.T. Barnum-like promotions played a huge role in helping the Riches save professional baseball in Buffalo. “Yeah, it’s unfortunate, that there can’t be any fans in the stands because of COVID, but when they write the history of Major League Baseball it will say that Buffalo was home to a big-league team in 2020.”
This will be the fourth time a major league team has called Buffalo home, and the first in 105 years, according to Billoni, who soon will be publishing, “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball: 1857-2020,” an update of Joseph Overfield’s definitive history of baseball that came out in 1985. “We were going to have it out sooner, but this move by the Jays changed our plans,’’ he said. “We obviously need to document this historic season.”
Billoni has always dreamed big, so here’s what he’s hoping for in 2020: A World Series title by the Jays in Buffalo. “That way we could have two banner-raising ceremonies in 2021,’’ he said. “One at (Toronto’s) Rogers Centre. And one at Sahlen.”
Such an ending would be even more unbelievable than that climactic scene in The Natural, when Roy Hobbs, the slugging character played by Robert Redford, hits that light-tower-shattering home run at the old Rockpile. Imagine if Billoni’s dream came true? A city famished for a Lombardi Trophy and/or a Stanley Cup would finally get its hands on the Holy Grail — only it would be that MLB “hunk of metal” known as the Commissioner’s Trophy.
In a way that would be a fitting cap to one of the most bizarre years in the history of sports.
And if it did come true, the Blue Jays might be shipping some World Series rings to Dan Mason and other staff members of the Rochester Red Wings because they will have played a supporting role. Frontier Field will be home to between 45-50 practice squad players, coaches and support people. They’ll be here, practicing and scrimmaging on the new field the county installed in the offseason, for as long as the Jays are playing this season.
The arrangement will mean some much-needed rent money for the cash-strapped Wings, whose International League season was canceled. And it will serve another purpose. “It will keep our streak alive of having professional baseball in Rochester for every summer since 1894,’’ Mason said. “That’s something we’re proud of and didn’t want to see end.”
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.