In the 1993 movie “The Sandlot,” Squints says: “Listen to me, Smalls. This is a matter of life and death. Where did your old man get that ball?”
It’s right after Smalls hit the baseball — which, unknown to him, was autographed by Babe Ruth — into the treacherous, dangerous neighbors’ yard, where a beast of sorts was said to reside.
The kids in the Sandlot could not fathom that Smalls had brought an autographed ball to play. They had to get it back. After all, it was life or death, as Squints put it.
Today, sports fans are left with classic sports movies such as “The Sandlot” to watch given that sporting events across the nation have been canceled. As Californians round out their third week under the state’s shelter-in-place order, one can’t help but wonder when they’ll actually be playing sports, watching sports live on television or cheering in a packed stadium.
These are thoughts shared by many, as people grow increasingly concerned about the realities of the COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, pandemic and its long-lasting effects. Frankly, there aren’t clear answers to any of those questions. Or at least, there shouldn’t be.
Reports emerged this week that Major League Baseball has been considering a number of plans to allow the season to start, including a one-location plan where we could see Opening Day as early as May. While still only an idea, the plan would require having no fans in the stands and a number of games would be played in neutral territory, likely building a bubble in Arizona.
Most importantly, if enacted, such a proposal would require high coronavirus testing ability in addition to having the means to quickly receive test results. As of now, the supply of testing kits is still far too low to consider widespread coronavirus testing across the nation, a strategy that would be critical to get people back to work while limiting the spread of the virus.
Last week, the three associations that represent state-level public health programs across the nation issued a statement recommending testing be reserved for three groups of people. These include healthcare workers and first responders, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, or those whose treatment plan would meaningfully change with a diagnosis.
In other words, testing is just not available on the scale that the MLB would need. Even if the league were to procure tests privately, there are a number of other hurdles that aren’t only bureaucratic burdens, but risks to public health.
As one NBA general manager told ESPN, they are most worried about “the inevitability — not even likelihood, the absolute inevitability — of a false negative.”
While testing would be necessary to get the season going, it is also imperfect. A player who tests negative, even if they have the virus, can and will infect those surrounding them. Most younger teammates are less likely to experience dire consequences, but older coaches and team staff could be more vulnerable. Even with testing, there’s a significant risk to resuming play.
Given the importance of sports to American culture, it’s not entirely baffling that the MLB would toy with the idea of returning in May. It would be deeply concerning, however, if the league were to follow through with it, especially given equipment shortages and our need to prioritize more vulnerable populations, as well as essential workers and services.
The return of sports would mean magnitudes for many people across the country — restoring a semblance of normalcy, a favorite pastime or a helpful distraction — even as individuals continue to self-isolate. Yet the risks to people’s health that come with prematurely resuming sports ultimately negate the benefits.
In “The Sandlot,” Squints metaphorically compared the need to retrieve the baseball to a “life and death” situation. But now, we are faced with a more literal life or death decision. Baseball, like all sports, will persevere through this — but hopping the fence to chase a premature return can lead to far more harm than good.