WASHINGTON -- THEY PLAYED BASEBALL here Thursday. The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees at Nationals Park. The attendance was 0. Max Scherzer, the Nationals' ace, faced off against Gerrit Cole, the Yankees' shiny new $324 million toy. They threw pitches. Hitters swung at them. Balls flew and fielders chased them and batters ran and the game itself, the perfect summertime activity, Americana in the nation's capital, felt the same, even if nothing really is anymore.
Baseball became the first big-four American professional sport to return, and its circuitous path to 7:09 p.m., when Scherzer missed with a fastball to the Yankees' Aaron Hicks, mirrored the chaos of recent months. There was partisanship, fighting, power plays, brinksmanship. At one point, when the animus between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association threatened the season, the White House got involved, offering to mediate. President Donald Trump had said he wanted baseball to return -- to bring a sliver of normalcy to a world beset by abnormality and shattered by death.
For the past four months, as baseball shut down and the coronavirus overwhelmed all aspects of daily life, baseball has framed an eventual return similarly: as a panacea, a diversion, something that's not the pandemic. Thursday laid bare the folly of that idea, that piped-in crowd noise and broadcasters calling the game from home and copious mask usage and empty concourses don't explicitly illustrate there is absolutely nothing normal about this. That so desirous is America for something else, anything else, that it could look past the absurdity of a baseball stadium, a place of gathering, of coming together, mandating the few allowed inside stay apart.
Which didn't lessen the joy that could be gleaned from it. The pent-up desire to scream and cheer and suffer finally had found its outlet. The plea for something orderly and incontrovertible was answered. The pandemic cannot change 60 feet, 6 inches from mound to plate. It cannot modify 90 feet between the bases. It cannot rejigger the 5-ounce ball and it cannot source new material for bats and it cannot abolish three strikes and you're out.
And for that reliability, and the knowledge that the Nationals and Yankees are each scheduled to provide it at least 59 more times this summer and fall, there was appreciation. Baseball, for better and worse, was back.
OVER THE NEXT two months, baseball's 30 teams plan to spend days in hotels and nights on airplanes. Thousands of players and staff will potentially be exposed to a virus that statistics suggest is unlikely to hurt them but carries within it the ability to kill. People will test positive for COVID-19 and pray they're not among the unlucky. They'll take the risk so those who watch them can reap the reward. It is an iniquitous transaction. It is also one to which players have hardened themselves.
"I'd rather be playing baseball," Scherzer said, "than not."
He said this less than 12 hours after his teammate Juan Soto, a 21-year-old who already has established himself as one of the game's best players, joined millions of others in America who have tested positive for COVID-19. Had Scherzer been the one to test positive, Soto almost assuredly would have said the same. This is the grand bargain of sports' return.
On Thursday morning, the lab that processes more than 10,000 coronavirus tests a week for MLB delivered the news of Soto's positive test to the Nationals. The team immediately scrambled. An outbreak in the clubhouse wouldn't just threaten Opening Day. It could torpedo their season. It could endanger the entire sport's return.
They traced Soto's contacts, and those who had been in close proximity to him were given rapid point-of-care tests to ensure they weren't infected. Soto, who was asymptomatic, took two such tests himself, with both coming back negative and leading to questions about a potential false positive, according to The Washington Post.
"It was a really harsh reminder of just how tenuous this situation is, trying to play a baseball season during a pandemic," Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. "We've seen -- how many cases do we have in the country?"
More than 4 million.
"We just passed that today," he said. "It feels like we've done a good job these past three weeks controlling the things we can control, to use a baseball analogy here. But we were really surprised. Because guys have been really good about distancing and mask-wearing in the clubhouse. Guys have bought in because they really want this to work."
They want it to work not just because it's how they get paid, because they love to play, because they see in it a greater purpose. They want it to work because if it doesn't, that means something went very wrong.
IT WAS GROSS here Thursday, the sort of thick, muggy day that clammed feet and caused countless Nationals jerseys to run heavy with sweat. Even if fans weren't allowed to attend the game, they slogged through northeast Washington decked out in their favorite jerseys: SCHERZER and DOOLITTLE and SOTO and others from the beloved 2019 team that delivered the capital its first baseball title since 1924.
One lucky Nationals fan actually got into the stadium. Dr. Anthony Fauci, to many the conscience of pandemic times, was invited by the team to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He wore a Nationals face mask, stepped toward the front of the mound and uncorked a throw for which the axiom about not saying anything if you don't have something nice to say was intended. Honestly, it was so bad that the progenitor of that rule might consider making an exception for it.
The previous 20 minutes had featured moments that ran the gamut from confusing to surprising. At 6:38 p.m., a half hour before the scheduled first pitch, a hype video celebrating the Nationals' World Series championship ran. It's the sort of thing that would have invigorated a full stadium. It felt out of place. The championship flag was then raised. A few people stood on nearby rooftops to sneak a peek at the ceremony. In other days, tens of thousands would have packed the stadium to see it in person.
The public address announcer introduced the Nationals players without tamping down an iota of his hype man flair, and maybe it germinated organically from trying to earn those capital letters in Opening Day. MLB has a 113-page protocol for how to deal with the coronavirus; nowhere in there is an acceptable level of decibels and general effusiveness in front of a nonexistent crowd.
With the players introduced, the announcer went quiet and gave way to a Morgan Freeman-read speech about social injustice written by Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen. The Yankees and Nationals players, holding a 200-yard-long swath of black fabric to show unity, knelt simultaneously. For the only time all night, the silence matched the moment.
Finally, it was game time. It had been an unrelenting day already, from Soto's positive to Fauci's throw to the players' kneel to MLB striking a deal to expand the postseason from 10 teams to 16 this year just hours before Scherzer threw the first pitch. It was the sort of day, in fact, befitting this city, one of unadulterated myopia, as if the only important things going on in the baseball world happen to take place only in America.
EVERY TIME RODNEY Linares sent Johan Maya a message on WhatsApp, he received a response within minutes, even seconds. Linares and Maya worked for years in the Houston Astros organization. They saw themselves in the other: a Latin American who had played low-level minor league baseball before transitioning to helping others achieve the things they hadn't, Linares as third-base coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, Maya as an international scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
When Linares texted Maya on Wednesday and didn't hear back, he started to worry. Then he got a call from their friend Omar Lopez, the Astros' first-base coach. Maya was sick. Linares called Maya's sister. He had spent the previous two days on a ventilator after going to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.
Doctors thought he had contracted the disease through his wife, Edulig, who is pregnant with their fourth child. She had battled COVID, with Maya taking care of her despite his asthma posing added risk. To support his career, she had agreed to move with him from their native Venezuela to the Dominican Republic, where he did most of his scouting. He would stand with her as she had with him.
"When you look at the word 'friend,' that was him," Linares said. "He was that guy. Everybody loved him. He was funny. And he cared. He cared about players. He cared about his family. And he cared about his friends."
"He loved his players," Linares said. "He always thought everyone could play."
Among those for whom Maya advocated was a young second baseman out of Venezuela. He was 17 and tiny, so small they called him enano -- the dwarf. Maya begged Lopez, the manager of the Astros' Venezuelan Summer League team in 2007, to put the enano in the lineup. Maya refused to relent. Finally, Lopez started to play him.
Four years later, Jose Altuve made his major league debut. He has won three batting titles and an American League MVP award.
Maya's belief buoyed anyone lucky enough to receive it. He saw Linares and Lopez ascending in the sport and loved to talk about what he would do when they finally started coaching in the big leagues. Invite me to a game, Maya said, so I can sit in the front row and drink beer all day.
Linares wanted to make sure Maya got to drink that beer. He scrambled Wednesday to find the convalescent plasma of people who already had COVID-19, which is being used in places as a treatment. Linares and friends pledged money to anyone who would give plasma. They found donors. They believed they had enough to give Maya a chance of survival. Then they got the call.
Johan Maya died of respiratory failure brought on by the coronavirus Thursday. He was 40. The last WhatsApp message he'd sent Rodney Linares had come at the beginning of the pandemic.
"Take care," he said.
THEY PLAYED BASEBALL here Thursday. They laughed at Fauci and knelt and threw and hit and caught and run. They acted like ballplayers. Johan Maya would have appreciated that. He loved Opening Day.
They had very human reactions. They smiled. They grunted. They cursed. When Giancarlo Stanton walloped a Scherzer pitch 459 feet for a first-inning home run to left-center field, an on-field microphone picked up Scherzer almost instantaneously unleashing an expletive. Thanks to pandemic sports, Hot Mic Szn is upon us.
They followed safety protocols. Baseballs were liberally ditched for new, untouched ones. Masks were prominent. Nobody fraternized for too long pregame. Lockermates are a thing of the past.
They adapted to new rules. For the first time in baseball history, a National League park hosted a game in which both teams used the designated hitter. Had a reliever been called upon, he would have faced a minimum of three batters. With Scherzer at 99 pitches in the sixth inning and about to exit in favor of a reliever, rain started to fall, then came in sheets, then settled into a consistent deluge. It abated long enough for the grounds crew to pull the tarp off the field, only to return and force the cancellation of the last 3½ innings. The final score of the first baseball game in 2020, the one plenty of people in the sport believed wouldn't even happen: Yankees 4, Nationals 1. In his first start for New York, Cole threw a complete-game one-hitter.
It wasn't exactly the coronation that the Nationals desired. They lost a star player in the morning and a rain-shortened Opening Day game at night.
"That's 2020 in a nutshell," Doolittle said.
Around the time Doolittle's Zoom news conference ended, the stadium's lights were shut off. Darkness bathed Nationals Park. The Nationals would return Saturday for another game against the Yankees. They would do so hoping Soto is that much closer to returning, while fully understanding that his absence could stretch far longer.
"That's what this year is gonna be," one executive said. "Guys are going to test positive. Just wait until it happens to a starting pitcher on the day of his start."
He didn't mean to imply that it would cause some sort of existential crisis or alarm. More that baseball isn't going anywhere, and discomfort is part and parcel of playing.
"We've all done too much work," another executive said. "We're pot committed. I'm saying that when you look at it from a distance, if you get outside of this bubble we've created for ourselves, people think it's ludicrous. We can't see that this is probably wrong. And we can't see why. Why are we having sports? We couldn't have sports in March and April, and now it's conceivably worse and we're going to have sports?"
He wondered what it would take at this point for baseball to stop. A star player testing positive for COVID-19 on Opening Day? No. Someone who works in the sport dying? No.
As difficult as it may be to reconcile the latter -- that because Johan Maya worked in anonymity, or because he had a preexisting condition, his life was any less important than the known commodity whose death it would take to force baseball to consider suspending its season -- it's the uncomfortable compromise the sport accepts to operate. Rodney Linares will coach third base Friday. Jose Altuve will play second base Friday. Juan Soto will take another test Friday and hope it comes back negative. They'll swallow hard and pray it's not them or anyone else, because one is already one too many. They'll get used to the oddities but not so used to them that they register as normal.
They'll embrace baseball for better, because that's the choice their sport made, and in this confusing, dystopic time, it beats the alternative.