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Can MLB play ball and still avoid an outbreak?

Months after the start of spring training, the first pitch of the 2020 Major League Baseball season will be thrown Thursday night. Opening Day gets underway with the Washington Nationals hosting the New York Yankees. But the season will be very unusual, with no fans present at stadiums, and many questions about it remain unanswered. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Months after the start of baseball's spring training, the first pitch is thrown tonight.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, it will be a very different season, with many outstanding questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the changes aren't surprising in a pandemic, but they are significant in many ways.

    Each team will play just 60 regular season games. There are no fans in the stadiums, and masks are required for many in the dugouts.

    Jeff Passan covers Major League Baseball for ESPN, and he joins me now.

    Jeff, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You wrote, calling this the weirdest Major League Baseball season that's about to begin. The players aren't in a bubble, like in the NBA, right? They're not limited to locations, like in the NHL. They are traveling.

    How is the league handling safety?

  • Jeff Passan:

    The league is trying to handle safety as best as it can.

    But when you're traveling, when you're exposing yourself to different environments, when you're staying in hotels, when you're going on planes, when you're doing all of the things that NBA players and NHL players are not, you are exposing yourself inherently that you're going to come up positive for COVID-19.

    And, look, even before, Amna, the Washington Nationals, the defending World Series champions, traveled, and Juan Soto, their star outfielder there tested, positive for COVID-19.

    So, this is just the reality that baseball is having to deal with right now. It's understanding that, no matter what you do, no matter how often you test, no matter how many safety protocols you have in place, there are still going to be positive tests that come back.

    And baseball needs to make the decision, are we going to continue playing through this? And the answer, at least so far, has been yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, there is this very weird issue, to use your word here, about the Blue Jays as well, right?

    They were supposed to be playing in Toronto, they thought they would be. The government said no. So, what now?

  • Jeff Passan:

    Well, they got rejected by their own federal government. Then they went to Pittsburgh. And they thought they had a home at PNC Park. And the Pennsylvania Department of Health yesterday came back and said, no, no, no, not so fast. We're not going to have you here, because there are teams that are down in Florida, the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the Miami Marlins, who are scheduled to face the Toronto Blue Jays this year.

    And Pennsylvania doesn't want more people coming from hot spots into the state.

    Now they're looking at the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles are looking at hosting them, but it's in the hands of Governor Larry Hogan at this point.

    So it's the intersection, Amna, of sports and politics. And when we try to say that these two things are separate, they aren't separate. They're not separate in social justice issues, and they are certainly not separate when it comes to the coronavirus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeff, we all remember what baseball looks like under normal circumstances. There's now a shorter, condensed season.

    There's been some rule changes too. We mentioned some of the physical changes people are going to be seeing.

    How different will the game be, both for players and for the fans watching at home?

  • Jeff Passan:

    Amna, I was at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City this week, and they were playing an exhibition game against the Houston Astros.

    And the only word that could come to mind was eerie. It was eerie because you're used to sights and sounds and smells at a baseball stadium, and none of those were there. And it's almost like you're in this movie, and everything seems fake, because it is so different, because it's so antiseptic, because it's to antithetical to what you're used to in baseball, which is loud, which is joyous, which is rapturous, which you smell hot dogs, you're drinking beer.

    You have all of these things that you associate with it. And, instead, you have piped-in crowd noise because it sounds good for the television audience.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeff, the fact that Dr. Anthony Fauci is throwing out the first pitch says a lot about this looming cloud hanging over the season.

    Is there a chance the whole thing comes to a grinding halt because of safety concerns?

  • Jeff Passan:

    Yes.

    And that's the fear of Major League Baseball. That's the fear of the players, that they're operating in a house of cards right now. And it's a house of cards in plenty of ways. It can be an outbreak in the clubhouse. It can be governmental officials coming in and saying, no, no, we're going to shut this thing down.

    In order for a season, a full season, a complete season all the way through the World Series to happen, Major League Baseball recognizes that it needs a few things. It needs players and staff members abiding by these protocols and recognizing that, you wear your masks, you keep your distance, you don't go out and have points of contact that are unnecessary.

    But even if you do all of that, you still need luck, and you need a lot of luck to make this happen. And the fact that we're at opening day right now, and they're actually playing, Amna, is a step in the right direction. They made it this far. Now comes the hard part.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we wish all of them good luck and hopefully good health for everyone involved.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Jeff Passan, who covers Major League Baseball for ESPN.

    Thank you so much, Jeff. Always good to see you.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Always a pleasure, Amna. Thanks.

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