Let me confront one aspect of this head-on: I have rarely in my life felt a dichotomy of emotion like I did last night. Kyle Lewis had a day for the ages: while ordinarily, a key home run and a go-ahead bases loaded walk are plenty to have a nice day, a catch that echoed the best this franchise has ever seen propelled him into “I’ll never forget where I was when __________” territory. I’m glad I saw that. It was an incredible, player-defining moment.
The other side of the coin, of course, is the current situation in Seattle and the decision to play any games at all. A predicted weather system off the Pacific coast failed to materialize on Monday morning, robbing us of much-needed relief and fresh air and sinking the Seattle area into a currently-indefinite morass of air that burns your eyes, stifles your lungs, and generally leaves even the healthy unable to exercise per current public health recommendations. 22-year-old Jesus Luzardo said it directly:
Luzardo on air quality: "I mean when I came out I think it was at 284. I’m a healthy 22 year old, I shouldn’t be gasping for air I guess you could say or missing oxygen when I’m getting to the line. So I’ll leave it at that." #Athletics— Matt Kawahara (@matthewkawahara) September 14, 2020
Like all of us, I’ve felt the effects of the current air every time I leave my house, even when just standing outdoors for a few minutes. It isn’t hard to imagine that it’s much, much worse when expending high levels of energy pitching, hitting, and running for over 8 hours all told. Really, it defies belief to think it’s not. True to form, though, Major League Baseball kept the blackout shades fully drawn rather than give any kind of account for why they chose to move forward.
A's manager Bob Melvin on whether A's had choice to play or not in poor air quality today: "No one said a word. I heard 200 (AQI) was the cutoff level to start. And my understanding was that it was way over that in both games."— Alex Coffey (@byalexcoffey) September 15, 2020
Much more ought to be known about how and why these games were allowed to go forward. Who made the decision? By what standards? Was there a scenario where MLB would cancel the games, or did they feel the necessity to squeeze them in regardless thanks to the total lack of off days remaining on each team’s schedule? MLB gave a non-committal and non-specific answer to the question of whether there was a protocol for the games to be postponed or cancelled for health reasons. That’s not good enough. Just a few hours south of Seattle, the air quality was so bad we don’t even fully understand the effects.
Oregon's air quality is so far off the charts, experts don't know what it does to the human body. https://t.co/NLXSdSky68— grist (@grist) September 14, 2020
As the host club, Seattle has faced its share of opprobrium on social media for these games going forward. If it wasn’t their decision, it would benefit them from a PR perspective to say the decision was out of their hands. If it was their decision, it would be appropriate for them to give some sort of public justification for why athletic activities were allowed to go forward when they cancelled a taxi squad game in Tacoma just a few days ago. As a fan of the Mariners, I want to believe they employed a careful, measured approach that appropriately weighed the risks, short- or long-term, to the players and gameday personnel. Knowing some employees of the organization, I do believe that. Unfortunately, the general public has little specific evidence of that at this point.
The Mariners rightfully spend a great deal of time and PR capital promoting the idea that they believe in a holistic development model for their players: they want to mold the entire player, not just the bat speed or the arm angle. I believe that model pays dividends on the field while also being the right thing to do off of it. Given how fervently this front office has conveyed that message, I want clarity that much more. Without knowing who made the decision to play and why, we are left to wonder and speculate where the Mariners’ commitment to holistic development ends—whether the team we love really has its players health and best interests in mind.
I think it’s much more likely that this decision was imposed from above, and the clubs were told not to discuss it. The decision to play and preserve the “integrity” of this short season has Rob Manfred’s fingertips all over it—while he likely didn’t personally make the call, it bears the mark of the culture he’s created in baseball. Ditto the clubs’ silence and dissembling: MLB has no difficulty in strong-arming anyone they feel they need to in order to preserve the Good of Baseball as conceived in the mind of Manfred.
As difficult as it is for me to imagine, it’s possible playing baseball yesterday was an appropriate decision. If that’s the case, it would benefit everyone to explain why, and to make the case based on atmospheric science and the recommendations of public health officials that there was a reasonable safety-based justification for playing. At this point, it seems more plausible that someone in the offices of Major League Baseball made an at-best rash decision to move forward and play in order to try to stick to a 60-game season or for other currently-unstated reasons.
Fire season is unfortunately now a fact of life for West Coast clubs. The Seattle area has seen heavy smoke in three of the last four years, and while the AQI has not regularly devolved to this level, every club west of the Rockies is likely to face a similar set of circumstances within the next five years if not sooner. Seattle isn’t through this predicament yet, either: the current forecast is for no relief through Friday or longer, and the team is at home for more games through the 23rd. MLB cannot continue to hide behind vague handwaving about clubs conferring with local officials. Published standards based on the recommendations of health officials, set by Major League Baseball, give a level of leadership and accountability from the top of baseball that is currently completely lacking, and a level of clarity for players as to what the maximum risk they’ll be asked to face will be.