The best team in baseball has reached the midpoint in the year of playing dangerously.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are trying to win a pennant while avoiding a microscopic beanball known as the coronavirus.
But is this medical game of dodgeball worth the risk?
Having the best record in baseball would compel them to say yes — even after one of their best pitchers, David Price, already said no.
The Dodgers had lost just eight of 28 games and no players to COVID entering this weekend. Today’s game against Colorado will be their 30th in a season reduced to 60 by the pandemic.
Major League Baseball, however, could throw up a stop sign to the season before the Dodgers score their championship. Commissioner Rob Manfred has hinted as much, with 15 of baseball’s 30 teams having had 37 total games scrubbed because of the coronavirus.
The situation received a major media spotlight in New York this weekend with the cancelation of the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets.
The Mets had both a player and staff member test positive to COVID-19 on Thursday in Miami. An MLB statement said that their final game against the Marlins and this weekend’s three-game set against the Yankees were canceled out of “an abundance of caution and to allow for additional testing and contact tracing.”
It’s easy, however, to read the angst between those lines. Boston pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez showed just how serious a COVID diagnosis can be when it sidelined him for the season with an inflamed heart.
Major League Baseball did give each player the opportunity to opt out of this season. A handful, including the Dodgers’ Price, did just that. Angels’ star Mike Trout nearly followed suit, saying he didn’t “feel comfortable” with his wife expecting their first child in August.
But Trout did eventually take the bait. Professional athletes consider themselves an invulnerable species.
It’s why Santa Barbara native Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets made like Superman during a game last week. He soared into the outfield wall at Citi Field to catch a fly ball hit by Washington’s Asdrúbal Cabrera, nearly breaking his neck and left kneecap in the process.
“It felt weird,” he said after an MRI showed he had done neither. “I thought it was much worse. When I stood up, it didn’t feel like my knee was too stable. That’s kind of what was so scary.
“Kind of everything on my body is a little bit sore from the hit.”
He was carted off the field but jogged back onto it a few days later, throwing caution to the wind and his body back into harm’s way. McNeil, a recent inductee into the Santa Barbara Foresters Hall of Fame, is also a living and still-breathing symbol of the MLB mantra that the show must go on… even if there are no spectators.
“I’m going to keep doing that,” he said. “I play the game hard, I play the game the right way.
“If there’s a ball that I need to go to the wall to catch, I’m going to do it… it saved a couple runs. I’m never going to change.”
Major League Baseball has had to change mightily during this summer of COVID — and not just by banning spectators and masking up its players. The National League, long resistant to the American League’s designated hitter rule, finally went to the dark side this season.
Baseball went even darker by borrowing an old softball innovation — the international tiebreaker rule — to have teams start every extra inning with a free runner on second base.
The hardball game also went soft by shortening doubleheaders to seven innings. The move was considered necessary since so many twin-bills are needed to get the 60-game schedule done by Oct. 1.
The phrase “Let’s play two!” — made famous by Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks — is being made infamous by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds must play 11 doubleheaders to get caught up after having 13 games postponed by the coronavirus.
It’ll take plenty of minor-league pitchers from their taxi squad to get through it. But could this Taxi-Squad-Confession perversion of baseball have been avoided?
The NBA has done well by playing all its games in the bubble of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. MLB decided against its own version, however, and resisted the option of playing at mostly spring training sites in Florida and Arizona.
Baseball’s great COVID experiment also hasn’t been popular with the fans. A Harris poll released earlier this month showed that 58% of the respondents believe MLB should stop the season because of all the COVID outbreaks. That same percentage doubts MLB will be able to complete its abbreviated season.
Nearly half of those polled — 48% — say watching sports is now “much or somewhat more boring than it used to be.”
But I’m guessing those 58% and 48% are comprised of a lot of Angel and Red Sox fans. Their teams haven’t won as many games combined as the Dodgers.
Armchair cheerleaders from Santa Barbara have a few other reasons to watch the national pastime on TV this summer.
Former UCSB star Shane Bieber has been mentioned in the same breath as Nolan Ryan while striking out 65 batters in his first six starts with the Cleveland Indians. Only Ryan and Pedro Martinez ever struck out more in their first six.
Dillon Tate, Bieber’s former Gaucho teammate, made a successful return this week from the disabled list. He pitched 2 1/3 innings of one-hit, shutout ball for the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday.
The Kansas City Royals got a winning start from former Cabrillo High starter Danny Duffy on Friday. And Dos Pueblos High’s Gabe Speier has given the Royals a few striking moments of his own out of the bullpen this season.
Catcher James McCann, another DP graduate, is giving Santa Barbara more reason to root by batting .341 so far this season with the Chicago White Sox.
And then there’s McNeil, the Forester batboy-turned-star, who played against McCann in last year’s MLB All-Star Game. He’s batting .317 for his career in 216 games with the Mets.
They’re all challenging the COVID, not to mention the outfield walls, and the best we can do is just hold our breaths and enjoy it.