The early days of spring training are about firsts — the first meeting, the first workout and so forth.
The Dodgers opened camp Friday and Clayton Kershaw threw a bullpen session.
Except in this instance, the occasion failed to elicit any sense of renewal or anticipation. Dodger Stadium was dead.
As Kershaw threw in the home bullpen, Dave Roberts watched from the turf in left field, his arms crossed and a mask covering the bottom half of his face. Two staffers were by his side. A Jay-Z song played over the public-address system. That was more or less it.
Kershaw later addressed reporters from an empty room ordinarily used for news conferences, his audience on the Zoom webinar four floors up in the press box, if not off site.
“This is so weird,” Kershaw said.
More like post-apocalyptic, if grass could still be perfectly manicured after civilization’s demise.
The Dodgers will start their season in three weeks, but July 23 feels extremely distant.
Kind of hard to get excited about opening day when the entire team can’t work out at the same time because of concerns over the coronavirus. Or when the sport’s No. 1 player hasn’t committed to playing.
“Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable,” Angels outfielder Mike Trout said on a Zoom call from Angel Stadium.
His concerns are understandable. He and his wife are expecting their first child in August.
This comes at a time when the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that there is “way too much virus across the country” to control. Arizona, Texas and Florida have backtracked from science-resistant positions and implemented new restrictions on businesses.
Asked how confident he was in President Trump’s ability to navigate the country out of this crisis, Dodgers President Stan Kasten offered a good-natured reply: “There’s no chance you’re going to get me to answer any question like that. Why did you even bother?”
The disease’s invisible arm has reached sports. The Clippers shut down their practice facility because a member of their traveling party tested positive for the coronavirus. A number of confirmed cases spread over several teams is threatening to shut down Major League Soccer’s upcoming Florida tournament before it starts.
Naturally, this raises questions.
Can enough baseball be played to crown a champion? Will the season even start? Could these efforts to stage a season be a bad idea?
Angels manager Joe Maddon defended the attempt to salvage the season, pointing to the safety protocols in place.
“The big part is we have everybody — and I mean everybody — buy in,” Maddon said. “Right now, we’re all being asked to be the best version of ourselves, the best teammates you’ve ever been in your life. We don’t need you to get the big knock in the ninth inning to drive in the winning run. We don’t need you to pitch seven scoreless. We don’t need you to grab a hold or pick up a save. We need you to follow the protocols.
“Everyone is talking about the high-risk individuals opting out. To me, the person who should opt out is the person who does not want to follow protocols.”
Demanding greater individual accountability doesn’t always make for practical social policy, especially in cultures that don’t already have a strong sense of obligation. But Kershaw has faith in the baseball community.
Recalling what he was thinking when he decided to play, Kershaw said, “I think there was a trust factor there with Major League Baseball, the players’ union, my teammates. I have trust that we’re all doing everything we possibly can to do this and play baseball.”
Then again, the worry isn’t necessarily that professional athletes will die. By virtue of their youth and physical condition, they are believed to be at low risk. The danger is they could spread the disease to more vulnerable segments of the population. Unlike NBA and MLS players who will compete in bubbles in Florida, baseball players will play on the road and return to their residences on nights their teams are home.
There are also questions about the season’s legitimacy. Instead of the usual 162 games, only 60 will be played.
The abbreviated schedule could introduce an element of chaos because there might not be enough games to expose fraudulent teams. The Dodgers have won the last seven NL West championships but were in first place at the 60-game mark in only two of those seasons.
What a luxury it would be for this city to again be concerned about the Dodgers’ championship aspirations. At the moment, the state of the game is too precarious and the situation in this country too volatile to seriously think about something as remote as a World Series.