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The pandemic didn't end with the World Series. Neither did Justin Turner's responsibility to others

Hannah Keyser
·6-min read

There’s something strange and disquieting about trying to parse just how hard his employers tried to restrict an infectious 35-year-old man from going where he wanted on the day that his team won the World Series. But no more strange and disquieting than the more expansive, serious reality of a country besieged by a pandemic that has killed nearly a quarter of a million people.

It’s uncomfortable to consider the levels of culpability when we’re talking about real people, issuing blame without having been there. I know that. But it’s no more uncomfortable than giving birth in a face mask without family around. It’s no more uncomfortable than saying goodbye to loved ones through a screen and leaving them to die alone, left to mourn alone.

In some ways it’s easier to blame impersonal institutions than individual people, and often that is where the blame belongs. Institutions have the advantage and extra responsibility of authority. Protocols have the ability to think clearly when emotions are running high by not relying on thinking or emotions at all. And in every case of individual failure, there is an institutional explanation for the situation. Baseball being played, for one. Testing being returned mid-game, for another. A pandemic allowed to ravage communities relatively unabated by municipal or federal restrictions. The notion that best practices are political. The notion that science is political.

But the reason the celebratory scene in Arlington after the Dodgers won the World Series was so surreal and upsetting was because Justin Turner, a real person, chose to knowingly expose other real people — his teammates, coaches, their families, and support staff — to a potentially deadly virus.

It was hard to watch someone who wasn’t grappling with uncertainty or ambiguity, who wasn’t forced to choose between something psychically painful and some invisible risk. He knew the stakes and the toll and the situation clearly. Doing the right thing would have been a bummer, an eternal source of wistfulness for Turner, who certainly deserved to celebrate with the team he helped lead to a championship. Unfortunately, the coronavirus cares not for what you deserve.

Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Justin Turner's insistence on celebrating with the Dodgers after receiving a positive COVID-19 test put everyone at risk. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The task of managing a pandemic, mitigating the economic and emotional fallout, mourning the inevitable toll, is gargantuan and inevitably imperfect even when everyone involved is doing their best. Time and time again, however, we’re reminded that human society is so much worse than we ever imagine. People don’t care about each other. At least not more than they care about doing what they want. They don’t care about someone else’s salary and health care more than they care about their own growing expendable income. It’s not just corporations that can be callous. People will endanger others to their face.

This is not to scapegoat Turner and absolve Major League Baseball — in part because Turner is not being blamed unduly and because MLB’s actions are also the result of some individual’s decisions. (And because MLB has already got that angle covered.) But the point is that the problem wasn’t just a breakdown in protocol — even though the protocol did seem to break down — the problem is that you can’t codify caring about other people.

Turner is certainly not unique in exemplifying this sobering reality. And whatever influence he has as a public figure on a national stage is nothing compared to the literal legislative influence of an administration that has, to put it kindly, glorified personal liberty at the expense of greater good.

(Now is a good time to remember that any fatigue you might feel, if you’re still rolling your eyes at people taking this all seriously after eight months, is nothing compared to the fatigue of still taking this seriously after eight months.)

It’s worth considering that earlier in the season, Turner was, notably, a vocal advocate for strict adherence to the Dodgers’ own set of enhanced precautions.

Rather than appear completely at odds with his behavior on Tuesday, there’s a way to view this as completely aligned with how the league at large approached the pandemic: Willing to make personal sacrifices and do whatever it takes for the sake of completing the baseball season.

Unfortunately, the difficulty facing our country is a pandemic, not the possibility of a summer without baseball. The risk was that people would get sick, not that a trophy would go unawarded. And that risk is still very present.

The Dodgers, minus Turner and his wife, flew home the day after the World Series ended with an infectious man removing his mask to celebrate amid a crowd. They had all tested negative in the interim, which is not at all how incubation periods work and reflects nothing about what MLB learned about outbreaks earlier in the season.

One of the Rays’ spouses tested positive, that news coming after she presumably socialized in the family section at Globe Life Field where masks were rarely seen. Aside from that individual and several people close to them, the Rays flew home Wednesday, too.

Those organizational decisions are as egregious as they are opaque. Whose decisions were they? Who had the authority to stop them? Testing will reportedly continue to be made available to players after they return home, but obviously not to anyone else they may come in contact with along the way. A lack of attention in the wake of the World Series has allowed everyone involved to abdicate any public accountability for the fallout.

On July 23, MLB’s eventual 2020 opening day, there were 70,006 new coronavirus cases, including Washington Nationals star Juan Soto. The pandemic was in the midst of a relatively unchecked peak even as baseball embarked on a new season. Three months later, after a late summer dip in daily positives, cases are at an all-time high. Tuesday saw 74,410 new cases.

Baseball’s ability to complete a season is a success that pales in comparison to the failure of our country to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. We’ll need everyone — baseball officials and athletes included — to care about each other as much as they care about sports. Maybe we can convince them next season is at stake.

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