The Astros are slowly starting to look like a winning team again. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The cardboard fan cutouts in the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park are quite a sight. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros winning ways have withstood the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros third baseman Alex Bregman takes plenty of pride in his defense. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Roberto Osuna is the Houston Astros closer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve brings real joy to the Houston Astros lineup. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yuli Gurriel's bat is as steady and strong as ever for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Playing in an empty Minute Maid Park is anything but normal for the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
A dark cloud hovers over Major League Baseball’s best intentions now — and it’s not likely to go away any time soon. Every trip to the ballpark — whether it’s taken by a player, team executive or reporter — is destined to be accompanied by wonders if it will be the last trip in a good while.
Will this be the day baseball shuts down?
There are no easy answers, no tidy solutions. No proven playbook from the past to go by. When a whopping 13 members of the Miami Marlins traveling party — including at least 11 players — tested positive for COVID-19, the equation forever shifted. Two games scheduled for Monday night were canceled — the Marlins’ home opener vs. the Baltimore Orioles and the Phillies-Yankees matchup (the Marlins just finished playing in Philadelphia).
Seven more were played, including the Houston Astros’ entertaining 8-5 win over the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park. Sixteen more games were scheduled for Tuesday. How many of those will be played? At least one (Marlins-Orioles) has already been called off.
Five days into this 60-game coronavirus altered season, a sense of uncertainty and limbo hangs over the entire enterprise. There is a real feeling that the plug could be pulled at any time. Many are ripping Major League Baseball for having the hubris to think that 30 teams flying around to play games in different cities and ballparks could ever work.
But what was baseball supposed to?
A bubble system like the NBA’s grand Disney World operation would never have flown in baseball. Not with 30 teams and 900 regular season games to play. Baseball and its players would have trouble agreeing what time it is. Getting that many people into a same site bubble was never realistic. Thirty Major League Baseball teams were not isolating from their families.
Playing these games in empty Major League stadiums is the best baseball had. Nobody thinks it is perfect. Is it worth the risk? That is a triple edged question, fraught with moral debates and ethical quandaries.
Having the games back has been great. Even with all the weirdness — all those empty rows of seats in the vast, largely ghost town vision ballparks, the lack of activity on the streets around the stadiums, the socially distanced faux high fives — anyone who actually loves baseball cannot deny its appeal somehow still endures. The excellence of the game itself has somehow become even louder in all the silence.
I find myself turning on baseball games even when I get home from a day at Minute Maid, having a Giants-Dodgers game in the background as I play L.O.L Dolls with my 7-year-0ld. What sports fan did not have baseball on in the background this weekend?
There is something soothing about having baseball back. It may not make things seem more normal. But it makes some things a little better.
The Astros games collected record ratings on AT&T SportsNet Southwest over the weekend, a pattern playing out across much of baseball. People want to watch baseball for whatever that’s worth.
The Astros still bring joy to their jobs. On the day the team’s ace pitcher, Justin Verlander, is placed on the injured list, his entire season in doubt, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman both homer and the deepest lineup in baseball puts up an eight spot to win the opening series against the Mariners. Balls are smashed all over Minute Maid Park, even if there are no fans to provide a real life cheer track. On a side note, it seems like these Astros games are catching on with the cutout community, with more faux fans taking seats in the right center field stands on Monday night.
The cardboard cutouts are seeing quite the offensive show.
Michael Brantley gets two more hits, continuing his Terminator-like spree. Through four games, the 33-year-old hitting savant is batting .467.
The Astros are still fun to watch, still one of the best shows in all of professional sports. Seeing them attack an opposing pitcher is like watching a velociraptor stalk its prey.
“There’s no breezing through this lineup,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says after his team collects six extra base hits against the Mariners.
Unfortunately, there is also no breezing through a Major League Baseball day these days — no matter how entertaining the on-field product is.
I feel safe going to the ballpark. Everyone is kept pretty separated. Temperatures are checked at entry and health questionaries are filled out. There always seems to be an Astros employee wiping down a railing or a bathroom door. Reporters are pretty limited where they can go too — there is no wandering the ballpark.
It’s a different deal for the players, however. They’re trying to play one of the hardest games in the universe at a world class level. The Astros will be getting on planes and traveling to other major cities after this initial six-game home stand that ends with two games against the LA Dodgers Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Even before his injury became public, Justin Verlander mentioned he was putting himself at risk with a young daughter at home. “I’m trying to stay one — safe,” Springer says when asked about his impending free agency.
Ultimately, these are the voices that will decide if the plug gets pulled on this imperfect attempt at playing a baseball season during coronavirus.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can talk about baseball being open to canceling more games “if we feel it’s what’s necessary to keep people safe.” But the business of baseball will push ahead overall — if it can.
A spree of players opting out, saying enough is enough, the risk’s gone too far, would stop this season cold, though.
If you’re a baseball fan, you have to hope that does not happen. While completely understanding if it does.
Baseball’s uneasy truth goes on, each day seemingly more uncertain than the last. The games are still great. The TV ratings are better than ever. And the unforgiving real world realities of the coronavirus pandemic keeping pushing against the doors and windows, threatening to blow the whole thing over.
“We’re four games in and everyone’s contributed,” All-Star Alex Bregman says after hitting his 100th home run for the Astros at age 26. “But a long way to go. I know it’s a 60 game sprint, but we’ve still got 56 big ones left.”
We all hope they do at least.
Fifty six has not loomed as this large a number since Joe DiMaggio. Baseball just wants to keep its streak of playing games going as long as it can.
It’s not perfect. But it’s all we have.