Olney: Baseball’s potential return is way too complicated to rush

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”

The word from the White House was that the president wanted baseball and other professional sports to resume to help keep the country moving forward, to provide at least a few minutes a day for a devastated nation to think about something other than the consuming horrors and death toll.

In the first days after 9/11, confused athletes gathered at Yankee Stadium and privately wondered whether they could play, given the shutdown of the nation’s air space, and whether it was right to even think about playing games in the face of greater events. Back then, I was a beat writer assigned to the Yankees by The New York Times, and I listened to players fretting about what they should tell their children about what was right and practical.

But baseball executives and officials from other sports kept hearing from the White House: Go. Go. After a week of grieving and reflection, the games continued, and Mike Piazza and others demonstrated almost immediately that President George W. Bush’s instinct to get back on the field was right, for the catharsis, for the healing. For weeks afterward, some people sorting through the desolation at Ground Zero talked about how they welcomed the temporary respite of the Yankees’ postseason push. Just as sports had continued during World War II, with appropriate postponement for D-Day, they continued after 9/11.

The reflex to move ahead in the face of the current crisis is ingrained, expressed by President Trump after his conference call with the leaders of the major sports Saturday. “I want fans back in the arenas,” Trump told reporters in a press briefing. “I think it’s … whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful, fresh air.”

But there is one enormous difference between the current situation and those days after 9/11. Nobody can say yet with confidence that in resuming games — even in venues without fans in attendance — many lives won’t be driven into greater risk for infection of the coronavirus: the lives of athletes and the attending support staff, the lives of their families, and the lives of those with whom they come into contact afterward.

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