How Do We Judge the Phillies (or Any Team) During a Pandemic?

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PHOTO CREDIT: BILL STREICHER-USA TODAY SPORTS

I’m going to be honest, I had a bad take a few weeks back. It wasn’t my first, it won’t be my last, but it wasn’t good–and I’m here to own it.

It went something like this:

“The Phillies’ front office should absolutely be held accountable for the team’s performance this season. It’s a different kind of  year, but it’s a level playing field, and sports are a results-oriented business.”

Baseball is only a few days into its summer reboot, and I have to tell you, I’m doing a hard 180.

Sports remain a results-oriented business, but how does an observer react and criticize roster construction and player performance in the midst of a pandemic that can impact players in numerous ways—without warning—at any time?

Injuries are a part of sports. Losing core players, overcoming adversity, and pressing forward is a part of sports. But COVID-19 isn’t the same as a hamstring pull. It’s not elbow inflammation. It’s not “just part of the game.” It’s a virus that has the ability to sideline the middle of a batting order like an ill-fated shallow fly ball converged on by a starting third baseman, shortstop, and left fielder—one that leaves all three knocked out.

This new reality doesn’t even account for the psychological considerations impacting players who remain healthy. You have pitchers out there throwing bullpens, wondering if they’re jeopardizing their families’ health as they try to refine their mechanics. There are hitters working on timing fastballs at the plate, unsure about how to interact with their teammates or live life away from the field.

I thought Phillies pitcher Cole Irvin articulated this point following the team’s July 4 workout:

“We were all talking in the clubhouse today about do we go see fireworks or not tonight because we want to make sure we’re still healthy and doing the right things to protect our teammates,” Irvin said.

I don’t know about you, but this is the exact type of question my friends and family have been asking for months.

“Hey dad, it’s your 74th birthday–wanna get a beer, sit around and talk? No? How about I drive over to your house, stand 40 feet away on the edge of your lawn, and we can yell back and forth for 15 minutes instead?”

I admire all of the essential employees who have put themselves and their families at risk to answer the bell every day since early March. I’ve wondered how the uncertainty has impacted their job performance. I think about how mentally and emotionally taxing the past few months have probably been for so many people.

Perhaps by definition athletes are non-essential employees, but they should be afforded the same consideration as play begins.

In most cases, we rightfully hold professional athletes, coaches, and organizational decision-makers to a different standard than that of other professions. When these groups fail to meet expectations, especially in Philadelphia, criticism follows. Typically, I would tell you that in almost all most cases, this an entirely justifiable reality. But the reality is just different this year.

This isn’t to say the season is trivial. It isn’t to say the eventual champion will not be a worthy one. Forget the talk of shortened schedules and asterisks, the team that can best navigate the many pitfalls awaiting it ahead of this sprint will have earned its trophy.

But what about the other side? What about the teams who fall well short of the goal?

Is it fair to criticize a reliever for hanging a slider at the wrong time as he wonders about the consequences of accidentally walking into a teammate’s cough earlier in the day?

Is it cool to ride a slumping hitter for chasing an out-of-the-zone slider as he worries about getting his pregnant wife sick? And what happens when “the wrong player” tests positive for a contender down the stretch? Will fans and media question how the player became sick or if he was taking the proper precautions? Is this fair?

In light of these questions, how can I, or anyone, take a Phillies front office (one I’ve knocked on many occasions) to task during a season dominated by a health crisis? Frankly, I’m not sure that I gave enough consideration to the human side of this situation.

The reality is—and I failed to understand this a few weeks ago when I made my initial comments—teams won’t be operating on a level playing field. Undoubtedly, every team will be impacted by this virus moving forward, but the impact is certain to be disproportionate in terms of case number and severity.

Don’t believe me? As things stand now, it’s a very real possibility the Phillies open the season without pitchers Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Joe Girardi admitted as much on Sunday afternoon.

Bullpen and back-end of the rotation issues aside–issues I felt were inadequately addressed by the Phillies’ front office last winter–these developments weren’t part of the plan. And therein lies the question. How do we fairly evaluate a team’s performance in light of a wildly unpredictable virus that in any other year would simply not be a roster-building consideration?

I’m all about baseball helping to bring us some remote sense of normalcy. Players should play the games, fans should enjoy the games, writers should write about the games. We will all move forward and adjust as best as we possibly can during this evolving and unpredictable situation. Even in light of the complications arising around the game in the first few days since its return, I still believe that playing is the best path forward, at least for now.

Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe I’ll have a different outlook a few weeks from now. Perhaps the games begin, normalcy returns, and we commence the critiques and second-guesses just like old times.

But I think—and I’ve grown to hate the trite nature of this word—the unprecedented context under which baseball currently exists should force us to adjust the lens through which we view the games. Ultimately, we must balance discussing and consuming the outcomes and performances while remaining sensitive to the realities and existing obstacles creating this difficult dynamic.

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