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‘We need the Blue Jays’: Hurdles remain ahead of baseball’s opening day

Senator talks health, safety and everything else as season nears

Cutouts of fans fill some of the seats in the Green Monster prior to the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 21, 2020 in Boston.
Cutouts of fans fill some of the seats in the Green Monster prior to the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 21, 2020 in Boston. (Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins told his wife that she would largely need to quarantine over the next weeks and months if the attempt to hold a truncated Major League Baseball season amid a global pandemic has any chance.

He said he was not alone.

“It’s a testament to how serious a lot of our guys are taking it, and players around the league are taking it,” Hoskins said during a Zoom roundtable Tuesday afternoon organized by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey. “We’re pretty confident if we can continue on with what we’ve been doing … that we’ll be able to get through a season.”

Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, convened the event to talk through some health and safety questions with Hoskins, Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington and representatives from MLB and the Players Association.

It came ahead of the scheduled beginning of an unprecedented season Thursday, when the Yankees will travel to Washington to face off against the Nationals, playing to empty stands. In a nod to the way the coronavirus has reshaped American life, the first pitch on opening day will be thrown out by Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert.

Several of the participants touted the success of baseball’s testing and health protocols so far, while acknowledging the uncharted territory ahead.

“We want to identify not only players who have those existing conditions, but players who have family members who are home who have existing conditions,” said Xavier James, the Players Association chief operating officer.

“As part of the operations manual, we identified players and staff who are at high risk due to underlying conditions, and they were given the option of opting out, and sitting this season out,” said MLB medical director Gary Green, who stressed he has been in contact with government officials, including representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with Fauci himself.

Among the players who have tested positive, Green said, “Probably half of them didn’t have any symptoms at all.”

Turning to the elephant (or bird) in the room, participants focused on the pressing logistical problem of where the Toronto Blue Jays might play their home schedule, given restrictions imposed by Canadian government officials to try to stop the spread of coronavirus. PNC Park in Pittsburgh has been under discussion as a possible alternate site.

“The reality is … we need the Blue Jays to be able to play in order for all of us to play. It’s a league full of 30 teams, and we need 30 teams to be able to start the season,” Cherington said. “We have an issue that we need to solve, and that is helping the Blue Jays find a place to play.”

The Pirates schedule might be compatible with the Blue Jays for the truncated 60-game season, Cherington said.

Toomey said as far as he was concerned, the more baseball in Pittsburgh, the better, even though there will not be fans in the stands, at least to begin the year.

While the league has a pretty clear idea of how the season will start, no one could claim to know how it might end. The senator asked Patrick Houlihan, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for MLB, what would happen if a state or local government were to order a stop to baseball games within their jurisdiction because of COVID-19 spreading.

“We would all want to try everything we could before we had to take down a season or to take down one team,” Houlihan said. “We’re going to need to be flexible on everything this year, including big issues like where clubs are playing. My hope is there’s only one team that we have to relocate this year, and that’s going to be the Blue Jays.”

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