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OC Register: Hoornstra: Why luck will turn your baseball heroes into superheroes

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How do you like your heroes?

Do you prefer the kind with superhuman strength, speed, and flexibility? Or do you prefer the kind who wrestle with their own limitations, who succeed despite human foibles?

Major League Baseball is hoping you prefer the latter in 2020. You will not get to enjoy a 50-home run hitter this season, let alone 60. No pitcher will chase 300 strikeouts, no runner will steal 50 bases. The most prized feat of strength in a COVID-19 season might be the power of the human will: to avoid high-fives, to keep bare hands away from dugout rails, to wash and wash and wash those hands, with soap and hot water every time.

Tune in to watch a game on television, and it might look enough like baseball to serve as a distraction for three hours. But if the threat posed by the novel coronavirus wasn’t so omnipresent, MLB would not have issued a 33,286-word manual with safety precautions for players, coaches, umpires, and team staff. The league would not have made a specific COVID-19 disabled list with no minimum duration. Certainly, commissioner Rob Manfred would not have said publicly that 60 games was the longest regular season possible because of the risk posed by the pandemic.

This season will not be normal, and not merely because it’s so short. COVID-19 is thought to attack blood vessels, not hamstrings or rotator cuffs. We can’t be certain how much time any individual player will need to recover from their bout with the virus. We don’t know how well they’ll recover. Unfortunately, we can’t even know if they’ll recover. Any day between now and Sept. 27 could be the tipping point for something catastrophic – a death, a team-wide outbreak – that renders the season unplayable.

To be clear, there’s a difference between being a Debbie Downer and being a healthy skeptic. (I’m paid to be the latter). We can glean encouragement from MLB’s testing results. Friday, the league announced it had collected and tested 10,548 samples from players, coaches and staff from July 10-16. Only six were new positive tests – five from players and one from a staff member. Since testing began, 80 players (out of approximately 1800) and 13 staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Two of the 30 teams haven’t returned a single positive test to date.

It’s harder to be optimistic when looking ahead. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. What happens when teams begin to travel around the country? How can players’ families limit their own exposure to protect the men on the field? In the District of Columbia and Los Angeles County – home to the Nationals and Dodgers, respectively – local laws require anyone exposed to the coronavirus quarantine for 14 days. That’s a steep penalty in the context of a 66-day season. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts conceded this week that he’s “a little bit” worried these municipal laws could foster an uneven playing field.

As the medical literature on the coronavirus becomes more robust, we’ve seen that it doesn’t attack its victims evenly. Even if most players who test positive can return, we don’t know how they will perform. They might echo a sentiment expressed by Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who was recovering from COVID-19 in May. “Taking 17 days off and then trying to get back into it, I really feel it. I still feel my lungs trying to get back in shape,” Miller told the Washington Post.

The threat of diminishing an athlete’s body from his peak is essential to the virus’ threat. This is why, without fail, players who opt in offer the same response when a player opts out: “we respect their decision.”

“They should make up an award for the trainers, doctors and medical staff,” former Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez said on a conference call Thursday, “because whoever keeps the players healthiest can win the championship.”

I take solace in the idea that leadership will matter, too. Leadership is a skill. Maybe it’s a skill important enough to make a meaningful difference between teams who adhere to MLB’s draconian hygiene guidelines and those who don’t. Maybe it will help keep players, coaches, and staff safe.

I fear that a more important factor will be luck, and not the kind of on-field luck that’s woven into the fabric of baseball. Luck that the hotel staff is diligent about cleaning your favorite player’s room; luck that no virus-carrying droplets make it on board your favorite team’s plane; luck that any asymptomatic coronavirus carriers don’t accidentally spread the pathogen to players – that’s what to root for in 2020.

So, I’ll ask it again: how do you like your heroes?

In the 2018 sequel to Deadpool, the satirical black sheep of the Marvel cinematic universe, one scene is instructive. The title protagonist is assembling a team of superheroes to get the bad guy. He finds Bedlam, who can distort electrical fields; Zeitgeist, who spews acid; the Vanisher, played by Brad Pitt; Shatterstar, who is “better than you at everything”; and Domino, who has the power of good luck. In the course of a single fight, Bedlam, the Vanisher, Zeitgeist, and Shatterstar die. Only Domino lives to see the end credits. She might not have been the most physically gifted member of the team, but she always avoided catastrophe somehow.

In 2020, you want Domino on your team. Actually, you want a team stacked with Dominoes. If every player does everything right – from wearing a mask to physical distancing to hand-washing – they will still need luck to make it through the season without contracting COVID-19. Then, and only then, will their powers on the field make a difference toward winning a championship.

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