Tuesday evening started off as an ideal night to attend a baseball game at Nationals Park. By the time Patrick Corbin threw his first pitch at 7:09 p.m. against the New York Mets, the temperature was a warm but comfortable-for-D.C. 82 degrees with a slight Northeast wind. Shade covered the majority of the 41,000 blue seats. August summer nights—until the downpour of rain arrived about three hours later—don’t get much better than that.
But instead of fans with World Series champion T-shirts streaming into the ballpark and long lines at the concession stands, Half Street SE was deserted. A surreal silence, punctuated by artificial cheers that pumped over the loudspeakers, greeted the players. On Monday, the MLB confirmed that 13 members of St. Louis Cardinals, including seven players, have tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of nine games.
Those postponements came after the Nats elected to delay their weekend trip to Miami after 21 players and staff on the Marlins tested positive. Just two weeks into the 60-game pandemic shortened season, 19 games involving nine teams will need to be made up.
All that evidently hasn’t been enough for the league to cancel its season, and on Tuesday, the Nationals continued the unsettling scene of hosting a professional sporting event with no fans in attendance after a four-day hiatus, beating the New York Mets, 5-3, in a rain-delayed game.
Forget the playoffs. The league, which is asking its players to play and travel during a pandemic and elected not to compete in a “bubble” like the NBA and NHL, can’t even go a week without a positive coronavirus case. Baseball is back, but coronavirus never went away. As of Wednesday, the U.S. has reported 4,748,806 coronavirus cases and 156,311 deaths.
“We got to follow protocols, plain and simple, in the clubhouse, on the field, when we leave the ballpark,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “I mean, all this stuff is going to play a big time [role] in order to keep everybody safe. We’re not just worried about us, personally, but I’m worried about everybody else, somebody gets infected and gives it to somebody else. I think the players are aware of that. We gotta be smart. So far we’ve kept this thing away from us ’cause we have been smart.”
Even without any major coronavirus outbreaks, the Nats haven’t been without drama. On what was supposed to be a ceremonious Opening Day, the team announced that Juan Soto had tested positive for the virus and would miss the game. He would end up sitting out the first eight games of the season, and believes he had a false positive after receiving back-to-back lab-confirmed negative tests.
Soto has insisted that he had not been flouting protocols, unlike the Marlins players, who reportedly congregated at their hotel bar and went out during their Atlanta trip.
Fans would’ve had plenty reasons to cheer on Tuesday—Soto being one of them.
Howie Kendrick hit a solo home run in the first inning and brought back his clutch and drive celebration with teammate Adam Eaton in the dugout. The team’s old friend, Brian Dozier, was back in town as a member of the Mets. And Soto returned to Nats Park, treating his teammates to a dance on top of the dugout (the same one that a fan slid across shirtless last year during a World Series watch party) after Josh Harrison homered in the second inning to give the Nats a 2-0 lead. The ball landed with a thud near the Bud Light Loft.
Harrison, playing in just his second game with the Nationals and first at Nats Park, also freestyled a dance in the dugout, as mask-clad reporters typed away on their laptops in silence high above in the press box.
“When things are going, they’re a bunch that wants to have fun and they need to have fun, that’s part of the game,” Martinez said after the win. “With respect to everything else, I want these guys to have fun … We try to keep it in the dugout amongst ourselves, but it’s part of the game.”
None of that was enough to take away from the fact that the MLB season remains in a precarious position. After the game, Kendrick spoke to reporters via Zoom about how each player plays a role in the league’s success this year.
“I’ve seen guys that have been 100 percent healthy that have had to go to hospital, and I’ve seen guys that have been asymptomatic that haven’t felt a thing,” he said. “So it gets tough when you’re trying to say, ‘Oh, it won’t affect us in a certain way.’ You look at [Eduardo] Rodriguez from the Red Sox, and now he’s got a heart condition from COVID. Each guy, I think we should take it seriously regardless, and we got to do our part … I think it’s one of those things that you do have to take seriously.”
So far, it appears the Nationals are following the example of their manager and veteran players like Kendrick, but it may not matter if other players in the league fail to do so. The league may only be as strong as their least disciplined player.
“I talk to the guys constantly about wearing your masks, kind of staying home if you can, ’cause we’re in some trying times,” Martinez said. “We love to compete on the field, but we’re also competing off the field, and part of that is just staying healthy. If we can stay healthy, we can do something special again.”
But, if the season so far is any indication, it may not be their choice.