As far as Dr. Anthony S. Fauci can remember, last season for the first time his life was almost completely devoid of watching baseball. “Much to my great pain,” he said in an interview with The New York Times on Friday night. He later added, “It was just awful.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down and consumed his life, Fauci, the US government’s best infectious disease expert and an adviser to seven presidents, postponed work that came from visiting Nationals Park, cracking a beer, eating a hot dog and watching his beloved citizens. Growing up, he played in Brooklyn̵
“My year has been a lost year,” said Fauci, 80. “I hope the coming year will be a little different, but it will depend on the dynamics of the outbreak.”
With spring training starting next week in Arizona and Florida – both frequent virus hotspots – and the Major League Baseball season set to begin on April 1, Fauci discussed the public health challenges ahead, his optimism that a regular season with 162 games could be played, his belief in that fans can safely return to the stands outdoors and what he told baseball officials.
Despite not having much baseball last season, do you at least know how the Nationals did it? (After winning world league title in 2019, they went 26-34 in 2020 – tied for last in the National League East.)
Yes, a little disappointing. But we’ll be back.
From a health point of view, you followed along and saw how MLB and the players handled the 2020 season without a bubble – from early outbursts at the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals that threatened the season to tightening of records and bubble-like conditions throughout the mail season?
Unfortunately, I really can not comment on it intelligently because I was completely out of it. I feel bad because I’m such a fanatical baseball fan, but I was completely out of it. I only worked 18, 19 hours a day, seven days a week. I did not have time.
Federal officials spoke separately with MLB and the players’ association last week. Did you recommend that the season be delayed or continued as planned?
I did not recommend one way to the other because it was very clear that there was tension between the Major League Baseball management and the Players Association – that the players wanted to make the season go on schedule, and there was some concern about whether they should delay that, which would have salaries and other implications. I could not get involved in it.
The only thing I said was that from a public health perspective it looks like the cases – if you look at the planning of the cases – they have peaked, they turn around and start to come down. And probably, the more time passes, the fewer and fewer cases we will see. Unless – unless – and this is a possibility, we have an unexpected wave related to some of the variants. So I think it would really be a close conversation, and I did not want to get into any of the controversy over postponing it or not postponing it.
I just want to say that no matter what you do, you have to do the best you can to protect the players and the people associated with the game because you do not want them to end up getting infected. As time goes on, there will be more and more vaccines available. And I can imagine that within a reasonable period of time, the players and everyone else will be able to get vaccinated. I do not think it will happen before the season starts, but I think it would be something that is on the horizon.
In any case, I did not want to take any sides in any dispute because I think it is an empirical decision. It really is a judgment call.
Do other professional sports leagues ask for advice as well?
They all have it. And that’s why I’m a little shy of this because it’s been taken out of context. They ask me questions that are public health science questions, and I give them answers based on solid scientific data. The decision they make is up to them.
Although matters trends downward, they are still higher than when the 2020 season started on July 23. So are you more or less optimistic that a longer season with 162 games can be completed?
What I have a bit of optimism about – but I must emphasize that there is cautious optimism – is that even though the cases are high compared to this time last year, they are downhill. And as each day goes by, it looks like it’s getting smaller and smaller. If you look at a month or so ago, we had 300,000 to 400,000 cases a day. In the last few days in a row, we have had less than 100,000 cases, which has been remarkably reduced.
So when the slopes continue to go down, we go in the right direction. Assume the fact that we now have very effective vaccines that are being rolled out. We vaccinate more and more people every day. And we will have more and more vaccines available as the weeks and months go by. So it looks like we’re heading in the right direction. Whether it stays in that direction will depend on a number of things: Should people continue to be careful and implement public health measures? What will happen to the variants? Should they make things harder by having an extra increase in infections? I do not know.
The big wild card in this is actually the variants. Because the variant that is in the UK that is likely to become more dominant in the US, the models tell us that it will probably happen by the end of March. If we do not follow public health measures as we should, it can take its toll on us. That’s why I say I’m cautiously optimistic because we could turn around and go in the opposite direction fairly quickly.
The regulations may vary across different communities, but what do you think about the likelihood that there will be fans in the stands during spring training and ordinary season?
The positive thing about baseball is that most of it is outdoors. And if you place people well enough, you get people to wear masks, you have situations where people do not gather on the concessions near each other to get food and stuff, you can pull it off in a pretty safe way, I believe .
New York Government Andrew M. Cuomo announced that it started on February 23rd, with testing, distancing and face coverage requirements, arenas and stadiums with 10,000 or more seats can host 10 percent of the venue’s capacity. Is it advisable?
If you are going to do it indoors, you must have the capacity significantly less than if you do it outdoors. Outdoor is a large safety valve in the sense of transmission of respiratory diseases. Outdoors are always better than indoors.
As an avid Nationals fan, would you like to return to Nationals Park to watch a game this season?
It will completely depend on the level of virus in society. If every time you look at the charts in the newspaper about infections, it keeps going down and down and down, so when I get ready to go to a game – where it’s hot enough for me to go to a game – I can very well decide that I want to go to the stands. But again, it is difficult to make a decision in the middle of the cold month of February about something you can do in March or April because you do not know what the level of infection should be.
On a final note, you will throw out a new ceremonial first pitch after last year’s misguided cast at Nationals Park on opening day?
I want a chance to redeem myself. (Ler.)
Have you been given that opportunity?
No, they have not mentioned anything about it yet.
Do you train at least in the meantime?
I have not done that. That was the problem with why I threw it so badly: I trained so much that I injured my arm.