Coronavirus

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Coronavirus, more properly COVID-19, is a virus that was first identified in late 2019 in China, mainly in the large city of Wuhan, but that may have been present elsewhere earlier, and became a pandemic in 2020 as it spread around the world. The pandemic had an effect on many sports, including professional and amateur baseball.

Introduction[edit]

The virus is also referred to as "Novel Coronavirus", and "Wuhan Coronavirus", although the latter term is disfavored. There are many types of coronaviruses, including some forms of the common cold, but the one involved here was a new type for which there was at the time no vaccine or cure. It can cause symptoms from those resembling a cold, to more severe ones including acute respiratory distress, sometimes leading to death. The virus has been particularly devastating on older patients and those whose immune system has been compromised.

March 2020[edit]

The coronavirus began affecting the United States in a big way in March, 2020, during the time of spring training. By that time governments around the world had started to take drastic measures, including banning travel from certain countries, quarantining segments of the population, and canceling a number of public events, including sporting events, in order to slow down the spread of contagion.

The first baseball event to be postponed were the 2020 Final Olympic Qualification Tournament, originally scheduled for early April but pushed back to the second half of June, and the opening of the Nippon Pro Baseball season. Both of these were in Asia, where the pandemic hit first, but by mid-March, a large number of major sporting events in Europe were also cancelled or postponed, including the opening of the Serie A1 season in hard-hit Italy. In other instances, games were played with no spectators present. On March 11th, the NBA announced it was suspending its season because a player with the Utah Jazz had been infected, and the NCAA announced that its signature men's and women's basketball tournaments would be played without spectators present (they would be canceled altogether a few days later). Various leagues had also decided to restrict access to locker rooms and clubhouses for reporters, and asked players to limit interactions with fans, for example by banning autograph sessions. The NHL and Major League Soccer followed the NBA's lead the next day by also suspending the ongoing season.

The question was now open as to what measures Major League Baseball would take. Already, however, measures taken by certain states and municipalities to ban large gatherings, including Washington and the city of Oakland, CA, meant that scheduled opening day series for the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics would need to be moved to other sites. On March 12th, MLB announced that it was stopping spring training immediately and delaying Opening Day, scheduled for March 26th, by two weeks at least; the 2020 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers, which were supposed to get under way that same day, were also postponed with no new date announced in the immediate. Minor League Baseball followed suit and announced that it was delaying the opening of its season as well (its first games had been scheduled to start on April 9th, and its season would end up being canceled altogether). The NCAA soon announced that the college baseball season would not resume and that the 2020 College World Series had been canceled.

On March 13th, the news broke that Major League Baseball, while still talking with the players' union, had suggested that players go to their homes, although that was not an order. Players could instead stay in spring training camp, or go to the city where their club plays home games. [1]

On March 15th, a New York Yankees minor leaguer became the first known coronavirus case in professional baseball. [2] A second Yankees minor leaguer tested positive a couple of days later [3]. A number of employees of other teams were also revealed to have tested positive.

On March 16th, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the start of the season would be delayed until mid-May, at the earliest. There was now talk of not holding the amateur draft this year, in order to reduce costs and because it would be impossible for teams to prepare properly for it. On March 24th, the pandemic claimed its biggest prize in the sporting world when it forced the postponement of the 2020 Olympics by a year. Until mid-March, the host Japanese government had been steadfast in ensuring everyone that the games would be held as planned in July, before also bowing to the inevitable due to concerns about safety. Athletes were unable to train while qualifying events were canceled around the world and a number of national federations indicated that they would not send athletes if the games went ahead, forcing the hosts' decision. The Haarlem Baseball Week for 2020 was canceled on that date as well.

As of March 26th, which should have been Opening Day, there was still some hope that MLB would be able to play almost a full season, potentially utilizing lots of doubleheaders and perhaps playing all the way into the winter. [4] In one of the few positive notes, players who were injured had extra time to heal, and some who were expected to miss time could be ready when the season did start. [5] However, with every passing day, hope for a "quasi-normal" normal season became fainter, the question being whether there would any baseball played at all in North America that summer. MLB was said to be looking at alternatives such as playing games in a figurative bubble, without spectators, in spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida, a plan that was quickly shot down.

April 2020[edit]

On April 1st, the Confederation of European Baseball announced the cancellation of the year's European Cup, Federations Cup and CEB Cup, which had been scheduled for June.

There was finally some baseball being played on April 12th, when the Chinese Professional Baseball League, based in Taiwan, opened its season, albeit without spectators present; the country had been relatively spared from the pandemic by taking aggressive measures to curtail it early on, something that could not be said of the U.S., where the pandemic was raging full on. Minor league legend Steve Dalkowski died in late April after getting COVID-19, while the global death total had topped 200,000 with the USA being the country with the most deaths. Also at the end of April, the Hall of Fame announced that there would be no induction ceremony this summer, and that this year's inductees would be honored in 2021. The next day, it was the Little League World Series that were cancelled for the first time in history.

May 2020[edit]

The Korea Baseball Organization became the second league to get underway, on May 5th, while at the same time the French Division I was canceled for the year as different countries had the virus under better control than others. Meanwhile, the CPBL began to allow small numbers of spectators to attend its games, with appropriate space between each attendee and other similar measures taken to protect public health. On May 11th, owners agreed on a tentative plan to begin the MLB season in early July and have it last 82 games, without spectators present, but at the same time there were rumors that the 2021 World Baseball Classic would be canceled altogether, with the next tournament taking place possibly in 2023.

In the middle of May it was reported that Major League Baseball would propose to use the designated hitter in the National League for the first time in a truncated season. It was also rumored that the players' union would approve that particular rule change. However, the union's initial reaction to economic proposals on May 26th was much less enthusiastic, calling them "extremely disappointing" as the pay cuts being asked for the highest-salaried players were massive. Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics informed their minor league players that they would no longer be paid after May 31st, with other teams expected to follow their lead.

On May 15th it was reported that former player and manager Art Howe was in intensive care as a result of coronavirus. [6] By this time, the virus had killed more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam War. On May 22nd, the Czech Extraliga became the first European league to start, albeit with almost no foreign import players.

Nippon Pro Baseball announced, on May 25th, that their season would begin June 19th without fans. The Mexican League announced they hoped to start their season August 7 and would allow fans in. By late May, the US death toll had now topped 100,000, more than the Americans who had died in the Korean War and Vietnam War combined.

June 2020[edit]

With minor league players no longer being paid, some players who remembered the years when they were toiling for almost nothing, stepped in to help. Washington Nationals player Sean Doolittle announced on the evening of May 31st that he and his teammates would pull funds together to ensure that the organization's minor leaguers received at least a small monthly stipend. For his part, David Price pledged to donate $1,000 to every minor leaguer in the Los Angeles Dodgers system not on the 40-man roster, as did Shin-Soo Choo for players in the Texas Rangers organization.

On June 3rd, plans for starting the Nippon Pro Baseball season hit a snag when two Yomiuri Giants players, Hayato Sakamoto and Takumi Oshiro had results of an antibodies test come back positive, forcing the cancellation of that day's practice game and the formal testing of everyone associated with the team. The two players were hospitalized to determine if they were still infected.

In mid-June, Belgium's First Division said they would start their season July 3rd. On June 19th, the Philadelphia Phillies announced that five players and three staff members at their training facility on Clearwater, FL had tested positive for the virus; as a result, they immediately shut down the facility indefinitely. This came at a time when the number of cases in Florida was climbing steeply. The Toronto Blue Jays also announced that they had found cases at their complex, and MLB ordered that all such facilities be closed to undergo thorough disinfection. Indeed, by June 23rd when agreement was reached on playing a 60-game season, some 40 players or staff members around MLB had tested positive, including Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon. Another figure who was hit hard was Chicago Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who in spite of being just 38 and in good health, still had to be hospitalized that month, was affected by pneumonia and lost 18 pounds in the ordeal.

The NPB season did open on June 20th. Also in mid-June, the Swiss season began. Lithuania had started their season by this point and Ukraine was planning to start in early July. Moving in a different direction was the Mexican League, whose earlier plans for starting up in August proved overly optimistic as it announced the cancellation of its season later that month. On June 30th, Minor League Baseball followed suit in a decision that was widely anticipated, as the economics of playing without fans simply did not make sense; the final straw however was the decision by MLB not to make players available to minor league teams this year, making cancellation of the season inevitable. Meanwhile, the pandemic was not really abating: by late June, over 500,000 people had died worldwide and over 10 million had been diagnosed. The US had over 125,000 deaths and over 2.5 million cases, more than twice as many deaths as the next country (which now was Brazil, whose administration had said the virus was nothing to worry about and they didn't need to put any restrictions in place).

July 2020[edit]

July 1st was the date at which MLB's training camps re-opened. In the days before, a number of players began to announce that they would skip the abridged season because of concerns over health and safety, including Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, Mike Leake and Ian Desmond, who were followed by others. The Minnesota Twins also asked two of their older coaches, 68-year-old Bob McClure and 64-year-old Bill Evers, to sit out the season over concerns about their health history. Left unsaid was the question of MLB's umpires, many of whom were also at high risk because of age or medical conditions. Indeed, veteran Gerry Davis, only 43 games short of 5,000 for his career - at which point he planned to retire - opted to skip the season, as did 10 of his colleagues. But at the same time, his fellow arbiter Joe West, at 67, was minimizing the threat posed by the disease, claiming the number of cases was inflated, and planned to go ahead with his work as usual.

The Swedish Elitserien began July 1st and the Austrian Baseball League started its season July 3rd. The Netherlands announced that the Hoofdklasse season would kick off July 23rd.

On July 3rd, MLB announced that the 2020 All-Star Game, scheduled to be played at Dodger Stadium, had been canceled and that Dodger Stadium would now host the 2022 All-Star Game. As players were tested when they reported to training camp, more cases of the virus were detected. On July 4th, Atlanta Braves 1B Freddie Freeman and three of his teammates tested positive, as did two members of the New York Yankees. In fact, MLB stated that 31 players had tested positive altogether, in addition to 7 staff members. While the tests were anonymous, many players who tested positive opted to self-identify, to warn others about the risks, including the Philadelphia Phillies' Scott Kingery, who had been infected back in June and was still not well enough to join his team's training facility a month later.

On July 10th the New York Times reported that 58 MLB players had tested positive, along with 8 staff members. Other prominent names were added to the list of those infected, including Aroldis Chapman and Austin Meadows, while many others were absent from training camp with no official explanation given in the immediate. In another strange twist, the Atlanta Braves signed free agent Yasiel Puig to take the place of Nick Markakis, one of the players who had decided to sit out the season, but he himself tested positive for COVID-19, voiding the deal. On July 18th, the Canadian Government stated it would not grant MLB an exemption to the closure of the Canada-U.S. border that was necessary if the Toronto Blue Jays were to host games in their home city. This was motivated by public health reasons, namely Canada's reluctance to endanger the significant progress it had made in getting the pandemic under control on its territory by opening its border to large groups of visitors from heavily-infected areas of the U.S. The Blue Jays were left to look for an alternative home base south of the border and settled on sharing PNC Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, that plan quickly fell apart as the state of Pennsylvania refused to approve it. The Jays had to fall back on making Sahlen Field, the home of their AAA affiliate the Buffalo Bisons, their temporary home.

The MLB season finally opened on July 23rd with no spectators present and a number of special rules implemented, such as the universal DH, tiebreaks for extra-innings, and special roster limits. On that day Commissioner Manfred also announced a revised postseason format for that year only, that would see 8 teams participating from each league instead of the usual 5. If more signs were needed of the continuing disruptive effects of the pandemic, the Washington Nationals had to scratch starting LF Juan Soto from their line-up hours before the game because of a positive test. and the next day the Braves were without their two main catchers, Travis d'Arnaud and Tyler Flowers, as they prepared to open their season against the New York Mets. There were other incidents over the opening weekend, with four Miami Marlins players disappearing from the line-up amid rumors of positive tests, and Cincinnati Reds player Matt Davidson testing positive one day after appearing in his team's first game, and a couple of teammates were rested preemptively after complaining they were not feeling well.

In the Marlins case, the wait for test results pushed the team to delay its return from Philadelphia, PA to their home base of Miami, FL. MLB announced the cancellation of the game they should have played at home on July 27th against the Baltimore Orioles, as well as of the game between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees the same day, as the Yankees would have had to use the clubhouse the Marlins had just used. The rumors were that 11 persons among the Marlins had tested positive for the virus, or a full third of their traveling party of 33 persons. This brought the whole plan on how to proceed with the season into question. Following a call among owners, MLB stated that there was no plan of pausing or cancelling the season at this point, however. But, that said, the Marlins were forced to stay idle for a week, and the same fate came on the Phillies, as two members of their staff tested positive on July 30th. Thus, two more teams had games cancelled, the Blue Jays and Nationals, who had been scheduled to play week-end series against the Phillies and Marlins respectively. In anticipation of a rash of doubleheaders being necessary to make up the lost games, MLB decided that these would consist of two seven-inning games, which is the normal practice in the minor leagues. On July 31st, the virus popped up in the Central Division, as two players of the St. Louis Cardinals tested positive, forcing the postponement of their game with the Milwaukee Brewers that day, making it six teams forced to stay idle on the same day.

The Belgian league stopped operations for four weeks effective July 29 due to recommendations of the Belgian Safety Council as cases picked up in that country.

August 2020[edit]

The month of August started with now 8 major league teams forced to be idle because of cases of the virus, the most worrisome situation being that of the Marlins. Two other teams were added when all players on the Minnesota Twins, the Cardinals' last opponent before their outbreak, had to be tested, forcing the postponement of their game against the Cleveland Indians on August 1st. That same day, veteran OF Lorenzo Cain of the Brewers announced he was sitting out the season after playing in his team's first five games: the Cardinals' outbreak had made him change his mind about how much risk to his own health he was willing to tolerate. Another top player, Boston Red Sox P Eduardo Rodriguez was also lost for the season because of the virus; in his case, he had been infected and developed a heart condition as a result, forcing him to take extended rest. As a result, Major League Baseball was teetering on the brink of having to shut down its season, unless things came back under control quickly. And the Cardinals had now become the next pressure point, with a total of 13 positive tests among their personnel on August 3rd, including 7 players, with a majority displaying symptoms. The Cardinals remained quarantined in Milwaukee while their next series, against the Detroit Tigers, was postponed. At least, no one on the Twins had returned a positive test, and the Marlins were able to resume their season on August 4th with a completely revamped roster. Things weren't so rosy for the Cards, though, as on August 7th, it was announced that two more players and a staff member had tested positive, forcing the postponement of their scheduled week-end series with the Chicago Cubs. With another positive test over the week-end, the Cards' next three-game series was postponed as well, making it 13 missed games; uninfected players were not even permitted to practice, casting even more doubt on how the team would be able to pick up once this had passed.

The publication USA Today was tracking and regularly updating the number of major league players to test positive [7], with the number at 97 as of August 5, including 24 players age 30 or older. The list included one free agent - Yasiel Puig. Commissioner Manfred asked teams to tighten enforcement of health and safety protocols, as it had now been amply demonstrated that small breaches could have huge consequences, and that it was far from a certainty that the season could be played to the end. On August 9th, the Indians showed that they were heeding the Commissioner's words when they sent P Zach Plesac­ home and placed him in isolation for 72 hours for having left the team's hotel in Chicago, IL without authorization. The next day, it was revealed that Mike Clevinger had also violated protocols, and he was placed in quarantine as well. Both pitchers were then sent to the alternative training site as further punishment, with reports emerging that other players on the team were mad at their lack of personal discipline. On August 15th, a player on the Cincinnati Reds tested positive, forcing the postponement of their next two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were originally planning to have these re-scheduled as a doubleheader on August 17th, but MLB instead asked the Reds to remain idle for a few more days to ensure there were no further cases. They were able to resume play with a doubleheader on August 19th. That day, for the first time since the opening week-end, all thirty teams were scheduled to be active, although one rainout prevented a complete slate of games from being played. Then on August 20th, there was another outbreak, when two members of the New York Mets tested positive, forcing some more games to be postponed. Two days later, there was a positive test at the alternative training site of the Houston Astros in Corpus Christi, TX, forcing its temporary shutdown. On August 30th, the Oakland Athletics announced a positive test, the first in the western third of MLB, resulting in the postponement of the game they were scheduled to play against the Astros that day.

With rates rising again in South Korea, the KBO went back to fan-less ball games. Cuba, meanwhile, announced the Serie Nacional would begin in mid-September, a fairly normal starting date. At the end of the month, Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver (already struggling with Lewy-body dementia) died of complications from COVID secondary to his dementia.

September 2020[edit]

On September 11th, a positive test affected the San Francisco Giants, who had to postpone a pair of games against the San Diego Padres. At the same time, rumors emerged that MLB was preparing to hold both the two League Championship Series and the World Series in neutral sites, in a bubble that would limit the need for travel or interactions with the outside world. These were confirmed when MLB made an official announcement to that effect on September 15th; newly-minted Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX was designated as the site of the World Series, with other postseason rounds to be held in other cities in Texas and California. On September 23rd, Commissioner Manfred stated that MLB was looking at the possibility of allowing some fans to attend the postseason games in Texas, where this was allowed by local health authorities, although this would require some significant changes to the health and safety protocols implemented since the start of the season.

Scout and former first-round draft pick Charles Peterson died of COVID at age 46 in September, as did former player Jay Johnstone, who was 74 and had been suffering from dementia, placing him in the middle of the demographic most hard-hit by the disease. Spain announced it would resume its season in mid-September (having played eight games back in March before being halted), a point of time at which its season was usually over! On September 19th, a couple of cases were discovered at the Milwaukee Brewers' alternate training site, which had to be shut down a few days earlier than planned, while more figures around the baseball world revealed that they had been infected, such as retired slugger David Ortiz, who tested positive but was asymptomatic while his brother had to be hospitalized and lost 20 pounds in the ordeal. Major League Baseball managed to complete its schedule on September 27th, losing only two games to the various outbreaks. The specially-designed postseason format began on September 29th with the first game of the best-of-three Wild Card Series in the American League.

Several European leagues successfully completed their seasons that month, including Lithuania, Ukraine, Croatia, Switzerland, Sweden, Czechia and Italy (one of the first countries to be a hot spot for the virus). Meanwhile, Brazil (which had the second-most deaths after the US, over 130,000) canceled its baseball season. The US death toll passed 200,000 in September as well and the world death total hit 1,000,000 later in the month.

October 2020[edit]

On October 2, it was announced that President Donald Trump had tested positive for Covid-19 (as did his wife, and a large number of others who had come in close contact with him). At that time, qualifying teams in the two major leagues moved to California and Texas to create a short-term bubble in which they would play the Division Series and League Championship Series. Commissioner Manfred announced that MLB hoped to be able to allow a limited number of fans to attend the games in Texas (health and safety rules in California still prevented the holding of sporting and other entertainment events in front of spectators). This became a reality when 10,700 fans were present at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX for Game 1 of the NLCS on October 12th, the first fans to attend a professional game in North America since spring training. The bubble concept, and the stringent safety measures taken in recent months, seemed to be working, as there had been no positive tests since the Cardinals' outbreak in early August. At the same time, the NBA completed its playoffs without any cases since it had resumed playing games, entirely in a bubble, but the story was very different in the NFL, where positive cases were playing havoc with the schedule, and in college sports as many university campuses across the country were shaken by flare-ups of the disease, some of them quite serious. The World Series started on October 20th, also in Arlington with a limited number of spectators allowed to attend in person. Fittingly, the ceremonial first pitch for Game 1 was delivered by front-line health care workers, in tribute to their tireless work in fighting the pandemic. However, during the final innings of Game 6, the series' last game it turns out, Los Angeles Dodgers 3B Justin Turner had to be removed from the game, in accordance with agreed protocols, because a second positive test had confirmed he had been infected. He was placed into self-isolation, but a few minutes later joined his teammates on the field to celebrate the Dodgers' championship, negating the purpose of his removal from the game. This was done against explicit orders from MLB, so the breach was likely to lead to consequences for both the Dodgers and Turner; in the immediate, everyone in their entourage would need to be tested before being allowed to leave the Dallas area. Left unclear was how Turner had managed to become infected in spite of the bubble, or if and when a Game 7 could have been played had the Tampa Bay Rays managed to win Game 6.

On October 14th, the Dutch government decided, in the face of rising cases, to shut down the baseball season, even in the middle of the 2020 Holland Series, putting life ahead of sports. No champion was declared. Elsewhere in Europe, the German and Austrian leagues wrapped up their shortened seasons. The 2020 Taiwan Series was played to completion.

On occasion, the media reminded us that during the 1918 flu, ballplayers had sometimes worn masks [8]. Even Babe Ruth had likely caught the 1918 flu and had a 104 degree temperature. When Ruth's team eventually won the 1918 World Series, there was no victory parade in the streets. [9]

November 2020[edit]

The Mexican Pacific League announced a 11-day shut down due to a number of players in the league testing positive. MLB announced it would not mete out punishment against Justin Turner as a result of his breach of health and safety protocols following the Dodgers' win of the 2020 World Series; MLB acknowledged that there had been some miscommunication with Turner and that the breach had not been entirely his fault.

Meanwhile, the US reached 10 million diagnosed cases as of November 9 and President-elect Joe Biden stated that the fight against the virus would be his Administration's first priority. There was also some good news, with two pharmaceutical companies announcing early in the month that third-stage tests of a vaccine they had developed had proved 90% and 95% effective, respectively. In spite of the spike in cases, and of regular outbreaks affecting a number of campuses, college sports were slowly restarting, first with football to be soon followed by basketball and hockey. The NBA announced a late December date for the start of its 2020-21 season and the NHL followed suit with an early 2021 date, leading to a shortened season in both cases. There was still uncertainty about whether fans would be allowed, and in what numbers. The closure of the Canada-U.S. border for regular travelers continued and quarantine protocols were still in effect for those allowed to cross it.

On November 14th, the disease claimed another baseball figure, former pitcher Lindy McDaniel. The 2020 Korean Series and 2020 Japan Series were both completed successfully. Spain also wrapped up its season, which had been significantly delayed as it would normally have been finished months earlier.

Rates were skyrocketing in the US, with the highest single-day death toll being registered since the earlier peak in May. With cases and hospitalizations going up quickly, the death count was expected to increase even more, though. Some states, counties and cities were imposing new rules to try to stop the recent rise, but there was no coordinated federal response, unlike in some other countries.

December 2020[edit]

In December, the U.S. began breaking daily death and hospitalization records set back in April. More Americans now died of COVID in a single day than in the World Trade Center attack. However, the positive news on the vaccine front continued, with the United Kingdom being the first Western country to authorize a specific vaccine, with the U.S. and other countries likely to follow shortly. A spokesperson for the U.S. Federal "Warp Speed" vaccination project stated that he expected that by the end of June 2021, vaccines could be administered to all Americans wishing to receive one.

Country-western singer Charley Pride, who had played professional baseball when he was young, died from Covid in December. By mid-December, the US had topped 300,000 deaths and was averaging over a death per minute; at the same time, the first vaccines were being administered in the US and in Canada.

When the month and the year ended, the daily toll from the disease was approaching 4,000 deaths a day. Vaccination had started in earnest, but more slowly and chaotically than hoped, with lack of coordination at the Federal level being singled out as a cause. That started with the President, who had almost completely ignored the raging pandemic while devoting all of his efforts to increasingly desperate efforts to reverse the results of November's elections. The original forecast of having enough Americans vaccinated to achieve collective immunity by June was revised by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who pointed to early Fall as a more realistic target. This of course had implications for professional sports and baseball, given that it was a pre-requisite for opening ballparks to full attendance. Meanwhile, international travel restrictions were increasing, as countries were increasingly requesting negative tests or vaccination certificates to allow foreigners to enter, with quarantines still in effect and many borders still closed to regular travelers - including the land border between the United States and Canada.

January 2021[edit]

On January 4th, MLB sent a memo to all thirty teams reminding them that strict health and safety protocols were still in place, including restricted access to training facilities and a limit on voluntary workouts prior to spring training. Teams were threatened with harsh discipline if found in violation. This came as there were rumors that a number of teams were planning "to increase the number of players at their Spring Training facilities in January and February prior to the commencement of spring training", something that the memo disallowed explicitly. It also reminded teams that a new set of protocols would need to be negotiated with the players prior to spring training, which was scheduled to start on February 17th.

News broke in early January that long-time pitcher Tommy John had contracted Covid and had been hospitalized more than once.

In addition to record number of cases in the U.S., news from Japan was not encouraging, as daily cases had begun to rise starting in October and had reached over 4,000 per week at the end of the first week of January, leaps and bounds above the numbers in the spring that had forced the postponement of the Olympic Games. The country declared a state of emergency lasting through February, and voices were starting to be heard questioning the possibility of holding the games at all. The government and the IOC issued a joint statement on January 21st stating the games were still on and that there was no "Plan B", but it was met with a lot of skepticism.

The worldwide death count reached 2 million by mid-January. Meanwhile, vaccination rates were slowly increasing, now reaching 35 million around the globe. On the eve of his inauguration, on January 19th, President Joe Biden led a national vigil at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the now 400,000 victims of the disease in the U.S. over the previous year. He had just introduced a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in Congress and planned to have 100 million Americans vaccinated during the first 100 days of his presidency. On his first day in office, he also created the office of national COVID-19 response coordinator, reporting directly to him, and instituted a mask mandate for all federal buildings, among various early measures aimed at combating the pandemic. As part of the vaccination effort, a number of ballparks around the country were turned into vaccination sites, including Marlins Park, Citi Field, Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park, among others.

Meanwhile, a COVID variant first detected in South Africa was starting to spread, which was bad news as it was found to be more resistant to the vaccines being distributed.

The major winter leagues (Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico) completed their seasons, though often with breaks and changes due to COVID. Also, some smaller ones (Colombia, Nicaragua) played through, while Panama joined Brazil is sitting the year out.

February 2021[edit]

The month began for some positive news, as the number of cases in the U.S. had finally stabilized and was even beginning to show a downward trend. On the immunization front, early results indicated that while they were not prevalent enough to have a major impact on the spread of the disease, the mortality rate among vaccinated populations was significantly down. Still, on February 22nd, the country reached a grim milestone with 500,000 recorded deaths from the disease, the largest number in the world.

On February 1st, the Players Association formally rejected a proposal from MLB to delay the start of both spring training and the regular season by one month, which would have led to a shortened season of 154 games. As a result, both were still scheduled to start as originally planned, with the beginning of spring training only two weeks away. On February 8th, the two sides agreed on a new set of health and safety protocols for spring training and the upcoming season. Among the features retained from 2020 were seven-inning doubleheaders and the use of the extra-innings tie-breaker - but not the universal designated hitter. The deal also confirmed the opening of spring training on February 17th and the date of Opening Day on April 1st. Baseball also adopted contact-tracing technology as used successfully in the NBA.

On February 17th, just as spring training opened as scheduled, news came out that the Toronto Blue Jays had settled on starting the season playing out of their spring training complex in Dunedin, FL, after playing the previous season in Buffalo. This was done as a result of the continued uncertainty over cross-border travel. That same day, SABR announced that for the second straight year, it was postponing its annual convention, which had been scheduled to take place in Baltimore, MD in June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization's founding. College baseball also resumed that week after an interruption of 11 months, and on the last day of the month, February 28th, the first spring training games took place with some spectators allowed - around 25% of normal capacity.

The disease continued to exert a toll on former players, as former All-Star Grant Jackson died of COVID-19 on February 2nd, followed two days later by P Hy Cohen. The global death toll hit 2.5 million.

March 2021[edit]

Good news on the vaccination front continued as the month started, as the approval of new vaccines and agreements between manufacturers to speed up production of these approved vaccines led the U.S. government to move forward its vaccination targets, aiming now to have all adults in the country by the end of May. However, surveys showed that a third of Americans were still hesitant about receiving the vaccine, a factor that could diminish the efficacy of the campaign. Other countries in the developed world were also moving full speed ahead with their own campaigns with concern mounting that less fortunate countries could be left behind once the richer ones had put the issue behind them through successful vaccination of their population and moved on to other pressing issues, letting the disease run rampant in some parts of the world.

Some U.S. states took this wave of optimism even further, by lifting their mask mandates, most notably Texas, in spite of criticism from President Biden that the move was premature. As a result, the Texas Rangers announced that they were planning for a capacity crowd to be present on Opening Day, something that had never been possible since the opening of Globe Life Park a year ago. The President also had an optimistic message on March 11th, in a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic, stating that if Americans stayed disciplined over the coming months, a return to normalcy could be envisaged in time to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th.

While plans for the 2020 MLB season were pressing ahead, there was a different message for the minor leagues, who were told on March 2nd that the start of their season had been pushed back by four weeks, until early May.

On March 9, news emerged that the Tokyo Olympics, postponed by one year until July, would be held without foreign spectators, and some of the events completely without spectators. This was confirmed in a formal announcement by the organizers on March 20th.

The CPBL again was ahead of the curve thanks to Taiwan's success in containing the virus, opening to capacity crowds on opening day. Meanwhile, MLB announced on March 29th that it would relax some of the health and safety protocols for teams that had managed to have 85% of their players and immediate staff vaccinated. Among the measures to be dropped was the need to wear masks on the bench, the ability to use whirlpools and saunas, and a relaxation on contacts among players and with immediate family members. These measures would be implemented two weeks after reaching the vaccination goal, and only apply to those having been vaccinated. Japan's NPB got off to its usual start.

April 2021[edit]

Opening Day took place on April 1st in Major League Baseball, with all 30 teams scheduled to play their first game of a full 162-game season. In all ballparks, at least some spectators were allowed, but full capacity was a rare exception, with only the Texas Rangers allowing it (their first home game, on April 5th, attracted over 38,000 fans). But the situation was not entirely normal, as the Washington Nationals, for one, still had four players in quarantine after a positive test, and their scheduled game against the New York Mets had to be postponed as a result. In fact, as infections multiplied, the entire series was postponed. Also, some of the ballparks were still continuing to operate as vaccination centers. And with vaccination proceeding at full speed and open to younger members of the U.S. population, the question facing players was whether they would get the vaccine or not, given there were segments of the population reluctant to get vaccinated, creating worries that mass immunity would be difficult to achieve as a result. A couple of days after the Nationals were the last team to open their season, it was the Toronto Blue Jays' turn to be hit: Teoscar Hernandez was placed on the COVID-19 list because he had been in contact with an infected person from outside the organization, before testing positive himself a few days later, and Ryan Borucki because of an adverse reaction to the vaccine. The during that night's game, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also experienced adverse symptoms to the vaccine and had to leave the game. The next day, it was J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox who was placed on the COVID list, also with an adverse reaction to the vaccine, but as in Borucki's case, his stay only lasted one day, and when he came back on April 11th, he did so with a three-homer game.

On April 12th it was the turn of the Chicago Cubs to return some positive tests, in their case two coaches, with three members of the bullpen listed as close contacts and placed on the injured list as a result. On April 14th, five Houston Astros players went on the list for contact tracing purposes. On April 17-18, two games between the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels were postponed to allow for testing an contact tracing after a non-playing member of the Twins' travelling party tested positive, followed by OF Kyle Garlick and another player whose name was not made public. That came only a couple of days after a positive test by SS Andrelton Simmons. As the month ended, Adam Wainwright and Corbin Burnes were placed on the COVID list.

The spring Koshien was completed, after having been canceled the prior year for the first time since World War II. Meanwhile, with rates up in Europe, where vaccination rates were lower, several countries were starting their seasons later than usual. Germany's Bundesliga did get going on April 1. Cuba wrapped up its season, overcoming COVID-related delays. By mid-month, South Korea, Spain, Czechia, Croatia and Austria all had begun their seasons. Europe topped one million COVID-19 deaths and global deaths topped three million. Meanwhile, vaccinations reached one billion worldwide, causing curbing of COVID in many countries; less developed countries like India were now being hammered by COVID variants as they had not vaccinated as many people, leading to record deaths worldwide even as the virus was getting controlled in some developed nations. The Netherlands began their season in late April.

May 2021[edit]

On May 4th, the minor leagues opened their season after a hiatus of a year and a half. While vaccination rates were climbing fast in the U.S. and Canada, it was not the case everywhere, for example in Japan where hardly anyone had been vaccinated less than three months before the scheduled start of the Olympic Games, as the controversy over whether or not they should be be held refused to die. On May 24th, the U.S. State Department issued a "Do Not Travel" warning for Japan, because of the high rate of infection in the country.

Meanwhile in the U.S., public health statistics were very encouraging. As of the end of the month, the rate of new infections had fallen by 20% or more for five straight weeks after having peeked at the end of January, half of Americans had been fully vaccinated, and 62% had received at least a first dose. As a result, limits on crowds were being gradually reduced across the country.

Major League players were still getting infected in spite of widely available vaccines, with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Myers of the San Diego Padres doing so on May 11th, while three teammates were also unavailable while they underwent contact tracing. At the same time, the New York Yankees were at the center of an outbreak, with 8 members of the organization testing positive during the week of May 10th; most of the positive tests came from members of the coaching staff and support staff, but SS Gleyber Torres was also among the infected. In most of the recent cases, the infected person had already received a first dose of the vaccine or were fully vaccinated, and as a result was asymptomatic.

Long-time Cuban national team manager Higinio Vélez died of COVID-19. The Mexican League season opened in late May. The Americas Olympic Qualifier, the first baseball tournament delayed by the pandemic, kicked off and would be played to its conclusion with no problems. Meanwhile, in a sign of how the Americas and Europe were now faring much better than Asia in pandemic control, both Asian teams withdrew from the Final Olympic Qualifier (Taiwan citing limited practice opportunities due to COVID safety restrictions) and the tournament was moved from Taiwan to Mexico.

June 2021[edit]

Switzerland, France and Belgium belatedly began their 2021 baseball seasons in June. Generally, things were going well in Europe on the vaccination front, with the European Soccer Championship (the Euro) finally taking place starting on June 11th, after a delay of a full year, in front of limited crowds across the continent. On the other hand, Australia joined the two Asian teams in withdrawing from the 2020 Final Olympic Qualifier, cutting the field (originally six) down to 3; Australia, like Taiwan, cited COVID safety restrictions. Taiwan, which had managed to control the outbreak quite efficiently until now, was in the midst of its worst numbers as it was dealing with difficulties in the procurement of vaccines, and a difficulty with adjusting its protocols to new, more contagious variants of the disease. While polls indicated that there were slightly more people in Japan favorable to holding the games, the numbers were still very low, and Emperor Naruhito himself, in a rare public statement, expressed his worries that holding the games would cause a rise in infections in a country where vaccination numbers were still very low.

In North America, vaccination numbers were progressing very well in both the U.S. and Canada, and all ballparks were now open to receiving fans, many of them announcing dates for operating at full capacity in short order. In spite of this, the Canada-U.S. border remained closed to non-essential trafic, forcing the Toronto Blue Jays to continue to play away from home. After using their spring training facility in Dunedin, FL for the first two months, they moved back into Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY, their 2020 home base, on June 1st. However, there was a caveat around the high vaccination rate in the U.S., as regional disparities were huge. In mid-June, while some parts of the country, particularly the Northeast, had fully vaccinated half or more of citizens, other states were clearly lagging behind because of a high rate of vaccin hesitancy. The Centers for Disease Control cited the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wyoming among those where rates were at 30% or less, and where herd immunity would be impossible to achieve unless there was a significant pick-up in vaccinations.

The Hall of Fame announced that it was pushing back its induction ceremony by a few weeks, from July 25 to September 8th, and that for the first time attendees for the outdoor advance would need to procure tickets in advance, in order to manager numbers, although the tickets would be free of charge. While no-one was elected to Cooperstown in 2021, the four men elected in 2020 had not yet been inducted, and they were expected to draw a significant crowd given the presence of New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter among them.

In spite of the rapid progress of vaccination, and many teams being allowed to drop mask requirements in the dugout and other similar measures because they had vaccinated over 75% of their staff, there were still a few players being sidelined by the disease, including Blue Jays pitcher Steven Matz. The virus also played a big role at the College World Series, were an outbreak decimated the North Carolina State University baseball squad, forcing them to forfeit their semi-final game against Vanderbilt University.

July 2021[edit]

As July started, concerns were growing over the spread of one the virus's variants, known as the Delta Variant, considered much more infectious than previous strains. This was amplified by the fact vaccination was starting to slack in many places due to a false sense of confidence that the pandemic was pretty much over. However, a study released in Quebec on July 7th showed that 95% of new infections were now in people who had not completed their two recommended vaccinations, showing both the effectiveness of the vaccine, but also the high risk for populations that were not fully vaccinated, as was the case in large areas of the U.S and even worse in many other nations. A study released the next day by the U.S. Center for Diseases Control showed similar numbers in the States.

Japan was one such country where vaccinations were lagging behind, but the Olympic Games were now truly confirmed, in spite of the many uncertainties that had threatened to cancel them altogether over the previous fifteen months. However, they would have to take place in anything but normal conditions, with Japan proclaiming a state of emergency on July 8th extending for the duration of the games, meaning that there would not be any attendance, even of locals, at Olympic venues. Ironically, that same day, MLB reported that all 30 major league ballparks were now operating at 100% capacity.

Occasional flare-ups continued around baseball, in spite of the improving public health condition. On July 11th, P Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies had to be scratched from a start and was placed on the COVID list, along with three teammates, after a positive test. On July 12th, the Korea Baseball Organization announced that it was suspending its season due to a resurgence of COVID in South Korea. This was ironic as, the previous year, the KBO had been one of the first leagues to re-start operations globally. However, it was now dealing with an outbreak that had 60% of the rosters of the Doosan Bears and NC Dinos unavailable because they had either tested positive or were in preventive isolation. That same day, Hall of Famer Larry Walker had to withdraw from a scheduled appearance at the All-Star Game due to a positive test. Three days later, on July 15th, the first game of the second half, a make-up game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, was postponed because of three positive tests of Yankees players - all vaccinated, incidentally. It was the 8th game to be postponed because of COVID this season, but the first since April 19th. The following day, three more players on the Yankees were placed on the COVID list, including All-Star Aaron Judge, although the team was cleared to play that day. The Colorado Rockies, for their part, placed four players on the list ahead of a game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the positive side, on the same day, the Toronto Blue Jays received permission to return to play in their home city in time for their next homestand, starting on July 30th.

COVID and the Olympics remained a hot story, with two Mexican national team members (Sammy Solís and Héctor Velázquez) forced into quarantine shortly before the Games began.

Global deaths topped four million.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Anthony Castrovince: "MLB jerseys to be used to make masks and gowns", mlb.com, March 26, 2020. [10]
  • Mark Feinsand: "Opening Day delayed at least 2 weeks; Spring Training games cancelled", mlb.com, March 12, 2020. [11]
  • Gabe Lacques: "MLB is up next and must take immediate action in face of coronavirus crisis", USA Today, March 12, 2020. [12]
  • Gabe Lacques: "MLB's journey into the unknown: Here's how baseball's coronavirus-delayed season could play out", USA Today, March 12, 2020. [13]
  • Gabe Lacques: "Minor League Baseball's canceled 2020 season a cruel blow in grim 2020 sports year", USA Today, June 30, 2020. [14]
  • Gabe Lacques: "Just days into MLB season, COVID-19 is already causing chaos for baseball", USA Today, July 26, 2020. [15]
  • Gabe Lacques: "MLB faces a major hurdle in COVID-19 battle: Players hesitant to get the vaccine", USA Today, April 5, 2021. [16]
  • Jordan Mendoza: "Korea Baseball Organization suspends season amid league, country COVID outbreak", USA Today, July 12, 2021. [17]
  • Bob Nightengale: "'Not good for the game': MLB players express concerns about impact of coronavirus", USA Today, March 10, 2020. [18]
  • Bob Nightengale: "MLB's coronavirus shutdown continues: Could season be pushed back several months?", USA Today, March 15, 2020. [19]
  • Bob Nightengale: "Cardinals, Marlins show consequences of being careless with protocols during coronavirus pandemic", USA Today, August 3, 2020. [20]
  • Bob Nightengale: "'It’s an unfortunate endpoint': Dodgers' World Series win marred by Justin Turner's return to field for celebration", USA Today, October 28, 2020. [21]
  • Bob Nightengale: "MLB threatens harsh discipline for teams violating facility access protocols before spring training", USA Today, January 5, 2021. [22]
  • Jeff Passan: "California order on gatherings of 250-plus could affect MLB games", ESPN.com, March 12, 2020. [23]
  • Tom Schad: "2020 Tokyo Olympics officially postponed due to coronavirus outbreak", USA Today, March 24, 2020. [24]