Annual first rites of a new season played out in front of well-below-capacity and socially distanced crowds, while ongoing contact tracing postponed a game in Washington were a reminder of the still potent peril of Covid-19 as the country faces another infection surge.
But the fact that there were fans in the seats at all to watch teams play ball underscored how much of the country is tentatively itching for a return to some semblance of normality after a grim winter of sickness and death and as millions of vaccines go into American arms at an increasing pace.
And while the vast salaries and ripped athleticism of modern players have no precedent, the rituals and geometric truths of a fabled game that has borne fans through the national crises of earlier eras brought comfort and continuity in tough times.
The annual return of the boys of summer carries a sense of renewal and possibility. A similar feeling is being conjured by stunning and welcome news of the success of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. New trial data shows the shot to be highly effective at least six months after the second dose and experts say it probably lasts much longer and offers protection against most viral variants that worry epidemiologists.
The results emerged as vaccine distribution quickly ramps up across the country, with more than 150 million doses of vaccine administered in the US and eligibility for inoculations fast expanding to almost all age groups in many states. The Pfizer news also offered President Joe Biden a powerful weapon in his drive to convince a sizable minority of skeptical Americans to get vaccinated to enable the country to reach the herd immunity that is necessary to eradicate the virus.
It’s going to take widespread vaccination to drive the virus down sufficiently to allow a return to packed baseball stadiums later in the summer — and then to see fans return en masse to indoor arenas later this year.
Biden rebukes Texas Rangers on capacity crowd move
On the issue of crowds, Biden registered clear disapproval with a plan by the Texas Rangers to have a full house at Globe Life Field for their home opener on April 5.
“That’s a decision they made. I think it’s a mistake,” Biden said. “They should listen to Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, the scientists and the experts. But I think it’s not responsible,” Biden said in an interview with ESPN in lieu of throwing out the opening pitch before the Washington Nationals season opener.
The Rangers plan to fully open their ballpark for their first game and then to play before a slightly reduced capacity with social distancing sections in subsequent games.
Texas is one of the states that has defied the President’s call for patience in easing Covid-19 restrictions in order to allow time for more people to be vaccinated. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott canceled a mask mandate and has declared the state fully opened.
The President also weighed into another controversy that encroached on the festivities of the first baseball games of the season — a new voting law passed by Republicans in Georgia that discriminates against Black voters and is based on ex-President Donald Trump’s lies that the last election was marred by fraud.
Biden backed calls by civil rights campaigners for baseball’s All-Star Game, which is due to be held this year in Atlanta, to be moved to a different state. Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has said, according to the Boston Globe, that it would be open to a discussion on moving All-Star celebrations.
“I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly. I would strongly support them doing that,” Biden told ESPN. “People look to them. They’re leaders.”
The current President’s attitude contrasted starkly with the way that Trump slammed protests in which pro athletes, inspired by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, took a knee to protest police brutality. Trump also openly feuded with sportsmen and women who spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd last year. At the same time as baseball was opening its season Thursday, the trial of the police officer charged with murdering Floyd entered its fourth day of testimony in Minneapolis.
The commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, said on ESPN that the sport had “always been opposed to any law that unfairly restricts access to voting rights.”
But he also appeared to indicate that at this stage moving the All-Star Game, scheduled for July 13, would be impractical.
“We plan these games years in advance and this game is only three months away. It’s one thing to say this game should be moved, it’s another thing to figure out how to move it on that short time frame.”
Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, lashed out at the campaign to shift the venue, accusing Biden of trying to distract attention from a flood of child migrants at the southern border, which Republicans say is the result of his more humane immigration policies.
“You know, he’s focused on trying to get Major League Baseball to pull the game out of Georgia, which is ridiculous,” Kemp told Fox News.
The power of organized political pressure should not be underestimated, however. Several iconic corporations based in Atlanta, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, recognized the rising heat from activists this week and forcibly condemned the new voting law.
The Georgia voting law may also be in the background at the Masters next week, the first men’s golf major of the year at the Augusta National Golf Club. Racial issues were already to the fore of this year’s tournament since Lee Elder, the first Black player to tee off at the Masters, in 1975, will be making his debut as honorary starter alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
The crack of the bat rang more loudly than usual Thursday around sparsely populated ballparks among socially distanced and masked fans. Most stadiums were much less than half full, with 20% to 30% capacity.
The Nationals’ game against the New York Mets was postponed owing to Covid protocols anyway.
At least three players have tested positive for Covid-19 and another is considered a “likely” positive, Nationals manager Dave Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo confirmed during a video conference Thursday.
The loss of the game was a reminder of the complications of putting on a full baseball season and all the travel that it involves during a pandemic. Last year, there was a heavily truncated seasons in the major leagues.
At Yankee Stadium in New York, which has been doubling as a Covid-19 vaccine site, fans had to show they were fully vaccinated or post a negative Covid test before passing through the turnstiles.
The visiting Toronto Blue Jays, who pulled out a 3-2 win in extra innings, will not be heading back to their home Rogers Centre ballpark any time soon. The US-Canada border is closed and the Jays’ home province of Ontario shut down for at least a month on Thursday amid a Covid-19 surge. The team will be playing home games for now at its spring training base in Florida. The team hopes to return to Toronto at some point but is also planning for a possible return to its minor league affiliate in Buffalo, just across the Niagara River from Canada, according to a report on the Major League Baseball website.
Not all of the Opening Day challenges were caused by a pandemic and politics, however. In one sign of early season normality, the Boston Red Sox were rained out and will have to wait another day to welcome fans back to Fenway Park for the first time in 18 months.