Nats star Juan Soto positive for COVID-19, out for opener

Washington Nationals Juan Soto passes on a pitch in the fourth inning of an intersquad baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington on July 17. Soto tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the start of the shortened regular season.

THE ISSUE

The Major League Baseball season finally got underway Thursday night with Opening Day contests hosted by the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Phillies are scheduled to play their first game tonight when they host the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Major League Baseball — and most U.S. sports — have been shut down since late winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 144,000 Americans, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Baseball’s Opening Day is typically accompanied by a chill in the air, a joyful lightness in our step and the annual revival of 18th-century poet Alexander Pope’s phrase, “hope springs eternal.”

But 2020 has been anything but typical.

Opening Day this year comes during an oppressive midsummer heat wave. Our steps are anything but light and joyful as a deadly virus and its ramifications for work, school and society remain forefront on our minds.

And our hopes ...

Well, our hopes on this surreal Opening Day are much different than in a typical year. We may be dreaming about a National League pennant for the Phillies, an MVP season by Bryce Harper or an Aaron Nola perfect game.

But we’re hoping more for a vaccine. For jobs. For schools to open safely.

We hope that we and our loved ones will remain healthy and free of this insidious coronavirus that has shaken America to its core.

Baseball is wonderful, of course. But if ever there was a moment when “it’s just a game” applied, it’s now.

That’s why we have misgivings and mixed feelings about this Opening Day. We wonder if it’s safe, sensible and necessary.

Those concerns were only amplified by Thursday afternoon’s Washington Nationals news.

Just hours before the 2019 World Series champions were to host their season opener, they learned that 21-year-old superstar Juan Soto had tested positive for COVID-19. Soto was placed on the injured list and will miss the start of the shortened season.

“(Soto) will be sidelined until he can come up negative on two consecutive coronavirus tests,” The Associated Press reported.

The somber revelation highlighted the complications in dealing with a virus that can be transmitted easily between humans, even when the carrier is asymptomatic.

According to The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty, the test for which Soto was positive was done on Tuesday, and Soto has not displayed any symptoms since that time.

But, because asymptomatic transmission is possible, everyone Soto spent significant time around since his last negative result — a test done Sunday — is potentially at risk. Soto and the Nationals played exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday and Tuesday.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo “told reporters Thursday that no other players or coaches will have to quarantine after the Nationals conducted thorough contact tracing,” the Post reported.

“I think you have to take a business-as-usual type of approach to it, just like any other injury during the season,” Rizzo added, according to Yahoo Sports national baseball reporter Hannah Keyser.

That remark spurred these pointed tweets from Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaplan: “Sure, aside from being highly contagious and potentially deadly, covid-19 is just like any other injury. ... This is a dangerously blase attitude toward a horrific illness that has already caused so much harm.”

We agree with Kaplan.

Washington Nationals players were tested for the virus again Thursday morning, but the results of those tests will not be available until late tonight, at the earliest, Rizzo told the Post. Players awaiting results were able to play in Thursday’s opener.

The combination of turnaround time on COVID-19 testing and athletes playing in games while awaiting results could easily lead to the virus spreading through a clubhouse — or to another team.

But what’s even more frustrating is that the 36- to 48-hour turnaround for most Major League Baseball testing is far better than what the rest of America can expect. Are we squandering our best testing resources on professional athletes?

“Laboratories across the U.S. are buckling under a surge of coronavirus tests, creating long processing delays that experts say are undercutting the pandemic response,” the AP reported Wednesday.

Some tests are taking weeks, and “the bottlenecks are creating problems for workers kept off the job while awaiting results (and) nursing homes struggling to keep the virus out,” the AP noted.

Delayed test results also render contact tracing — crucial to containing the virus and reopening schools and the economy — nearly useless.

These testing struggles come as the U.S. reached “a grim milestone of 4 million coronavirus cases, doubling the total number of infections in just six weeks as deaths and hospitalizations continue a sharp rise in many states,” the Post noted Thursday.

It strikes us as unconscionable to divert some of our best testing capacity to something as nonessential as baseball.

Sure, we’d love to watch J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen hit home runs. But that’s a want, not nearly a need.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine understands these priorities. Wednesday, she sensibly denied the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to play their home games in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. (Canada had already said no to the Blue Jays playing in Toronto and hosting teams coming from the U.S.)

With all this, it’s difficult to get excited about this Opening Day. Or about any pro sports. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association have millions of dollars at their disposal to pave the way for what they view as a “safe” return. But they, too, are siphoning resources America doesn’t seem to have at the moment. And with no guarantee the virus won’t spread among their athletes anyway.

With college and scholastic sports, there are even more complications. They don’t have the same resources for testing, contact tracing and keeping facilities sanitized as wealthy pro leagues. How can they possibly return to athletics safely?

We understand the need and desire for distractions from this pandemic. Baseball is our national pastime. Our go-to diversion in the summertime. Baseball is America.

But while we might feel a little joy — a sliver of hope — watching on TV as the Phillies trot onto the diamond tonight, we should think about the risks being taken, the resources being consumed and ask ourselves:

Wait till next year?