Niyo: Uneasy feeling invades MLB as Tigers play a home opener unlike any other

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was a virtual certainty, they all acknowledge that. And Monday night, as the Tigers played host to the Kansas City Royals inside an empty Comerica Park, it was virtually impossible to ignore the approaching clouds that shrouded a most unconventional home opener in Detroit. 

It was impossible to ignore the incongruity of it all, too, from the traditional pregame introductions — with piped-in crowd noise and players wearing masks — to the video rendition of the national anthem from Jose Feliciano, hearkening back to that stirring performance of his from Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. 

There was also an emotional tribute to one of the heroes from that ’68 team, Al Kaline, the Tigers legend who passed away back in April. The team is wearing uniform patches to honor “Mr. Tiger” this season, and they unfurled a “Kaline” flag on the center-field pole Monday, to go along with commemorative markers on the bases. The Tigers even included members of Kaline’s family watching from their home in Bloomfield Hills — a thoughtful touch. 

David Willis, 60, of Detroit, watches the pregame players warm-up from the centerfield fence of Comerica Park as Tigers fans prepare for opening day at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, Monday, July 27, 2020. Willis said he has been doing this for the last 10 years from the same spot.

But unlike in the video montage, there were no fans in the ballpark on this night — only those who milled about outside the fence on Adams Street or on the rooftop at the Detroit Athletic Club. Which certainly didn’t feel right, given the multi-generational connection that was forged between Kaline and this city that adopted and adored him and still aches to honor him in person. 

We knew that coming in, of course. And nothing feels quite right about any of this, no matter how hard we all try.

But if we’re being honest, we knew this, too: The grand bargain Major League Baseball struck with its players last month to play an abbreviated season in the middle of a pandemic was always a risky proposition, at best. 

Yet after just four days of balls and strikes — and before half the league had even played a game in its home ballpark — the proposition looks even dicier now, thanks to a coronavirus outbreak that already has decimated the roster of one MLB team and threatened the safety of others.

A total of 11 players and two coaches from the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19 during the team’s season-opening series in Philadelphia over the weekend, forcing the postponement of that team’s home opener Monday in Miami. The Phillies-Yankees game scheduled for Monday in Philadelphia was also nixed, as MLB officials scrambled to contain the problem and keep the 2020 season from spiraling out of control. 

“As players, we knew, or had an idea, that something like this could happen,” said Jordy Mercer, the Tigers’ veteran infielder, shortly after he arrived at Comerica Park on Monday afternoon. “It can spread like wildfire. I think you’re blind if you’re saying that this wasn’t going to happen, or something like this wasn’t going to happen.” 

Now what? 

But since it has, now what? The league can’t turn a blind eye, can it? That was the question that went cascading across the league Monday as the news broke about the Marlins’ outbreak and the ripple effects it could — or would — create. 

The MLB owners held a regularly scheduled conference call Monday and commissioner Rob Manfred insisted there was no discussion about canceling the season, or even hitting the pause button league-wide. 

“I mean, obviously, we don’t want any player to get exposed,” Manfred told the MLB Network. “But I don’t see it as a nightmare. We built the protocols to allow us to continue to play.” 

Tigers' Jordy Mercer grounds into a double play to end the fifth inning.

And so they will, clearly, relying on more testing and tracing, as well as the taxi squads. The Tigers-Royals matchup was one of 10 other games scheduled for Monday night, though another of those — Cleveland’s home opener against the Chicago White Sox — was postponed by severe weather. There was still more concerning news there, perhaps, as the White Sox announced manager Rick Renteria was staying back at the team hotel in Cleveland “out of an abundance of caution” after he woke up with a cough and stuffy nose. 

Caution is the name of the game now, obviously. But if health and safety really is the first priority, as Manfred and others have said repeatedly, how can the league square that with everything that has happened thus far? 

Things got off to an inauspicious start last week in the nation’s capital — fitting, no? — when the defending World Series champs learned one of their young stars, Juan Soto, had tested positive for the virus on Opening Day. 

But the game went on as scheduled, with Dr. Anthony Fauci throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park and Giancarlo Stanton uncorking one of his tape-measure home runs to give the visiting Yankees the early lead. And then Mother Nature cut it all short with a huge rainstorm — another reminder the humans aren’t calling the shots here – and umpires called the game after a 2-hour delay. 

'It hits home now'

Turns out that was merely foreshadowing, though. Because while the first weekend of MLB action produced plenty of highlights — and the welcome sights and sounds of America’s pastime — it also provided a serious reality check for a league that opted against trying to play its season in a “bubble” like the NBA and NHL are with their postseason tournaments.  

After seeing the news about the Marlins’ outbreak over the weekend, Nationals manager Dave Martinez told reporters Monday, "I’m going to be honest with you: I’m scared, I really am. ... My level of concern went from an 8 to about a 12." And part of the concern has to be the fact that multiple positive tests in the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia prior to Sunday’s first pitch didn’t stop the game from being played. Now at least four teams are in limbo awaiting test results before their seasons can resume.  

“Hopefully, this is the worst outbreak we have for the rest of the season, because it will teach us some things,” Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten said on MLB Radio. “But I do think we expected something like this at some point, and maybe getting it out of the way early will help teach us things that we’ll avoid repetitions of these things going forward.” 

Maybe, but there’s a 113-page operations manual that was supposed cover most of this, right? The Dodgers’ David Price — the highest-profile player to opt out of this season citing health concerns — tweeted Monday: “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.” 

And as Martinez, who has a heart condition himself, put it, “It hits home now. ... I have guys in my clubhouse who are really concerned.'' 

That’s true in every clubhouse, including the one at Comerica Park, where the Tigers settled in Monday for a nine-game homestand after spending the last week in Cincinnati. One that wasn’t without red flags, either, as the Reds’ designated hitter, Matt Davidson, tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday. Cincinnati then scratched two other regulars from Sunday’s lineup — Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel — saying both players woke up feeling ill. 

Mercer said he left his hotel room only once in six days in Cincinnati last week, other than to head to the ballpark for games. That was to go to the lobby to pick up an UberEats food delivery. He says his teammates are following a similar routine. 

“On the plane, on the bus, we’re all wearing masks,” he said. “Even in the clubhouse, when we’re walking around, it’s mandatory if you’re not eating or working out or wherever — just put a mask on. That’s all we can do. We have to travel. We have to go to other places. We have to get on a team plane. We have to get on team buses. So we’re trying to do the best we can to not get sick.” 

All of which factored into the uneasy feeling that was unavoidable watching Monday’s game from a sparsely populated press box. 

Opening Day in Detroit is supposed to be a celebration, an excuse to skip work and head downtown and party and revel in the official start of spring. Yet it’s already late July, and it’s not just the heat or humidity that tells us baseball is late to the party. It’s all the angst that’s now baked into the entire equation, the awkward truth players and coaches spent the last month talking about but now find themselves living — and breathing. 

And on a night that started awkwardly and didn’t end happily for the home team – the Royals tied a franchise record with six homers in a 14-6 rout – that was the lingering thought. 

“We’re trying to do everything right,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said, “and hopefully everybody else will, too.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo