FORT MYERS — It had to happen.
Major League Baseball had no choice but to postpone spring training and delay the start of the 2020 season as the baseball world finally starts preparing to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
The only question is, what took so long?
In the past week, roughly 1 million fans might have put themselves at risk by showing up to one of the 98 spring training games played in Florida and Arizona since last Thursday evening, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people over 60 (and anyone with chronic illnesses) should “stay home as much as possible” to keep themselves safe from the virus.
At JetBlue Park, where the Red Sox pack about 10,000 people per game during spring training, business went on as usual on Saturday, two days after the announcement.
Attendance was 9,549.
There was another game Sunday, as fans old and young packed into the park, sat shoulder to shoulder and sang with glee when “Sweet Caroline” played in the seventh inning. It was hard not to cringe when the lyrics went, “reaching out, touching you.”
Attendance was 9,661.
Tuesday, one day after MLB, the NBA and MLS all announced that the leagues would no longer allow journalists in locker rooms and would require them to stay 6 feet away from the players during arranged interviews (but made no such arrangements for fan safety), the Red Sox played again at JetBlue Park.
Attendance was the highest of the spring, 10,091.
Nowhere were any signs teaching fans how to practice safety against the spread of the virus. Instead, folks continued to share the ketchup dispensers for their hot dogs, high-fived after big hits and passed their bills down the line to pay the beer vendor.
Money exchanged hands. Plenty of it, to be sure.
All the while nearly 30,000 people, many of them over the age that puts them at higher risk, took in the games at JetBlue Park.
For the leagues to care so little about fan safety and only take measures to protect players from reporters (but not from each other), sent a strong message.
“I found it quite curious that the four major organizations NHL, soccer, MLB and the NBA put out guidelines to protect their athletes but not their fans,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday. “I think they owe you and their fan base an answer as to why is it more important to keep you as reporters away from their players in the locker room than keeping fans in highly contagious parts of the country together.”
Red Sox pitcher Brian Johnson made a good point when asked about the rule to stay 6 feet away from reporters on Wednesday.
“Everyone says 6 feet, but I’m not even 1 foot away from my locker partner,” he said. “We’re worried about one person catching it because then it’s inevitable a good amount of guys are going to get it. Everyone is just worried.”
But Major League Baseball continued to wait.
Meanwhile, the world around them was making arrangements.
In other parts of the country, large gatherings had been banned by state governments. Musicians were canceling shows. Art festivals had been called off.
As the Red Sox took on the Rays in Port Charlotte on Wednesday night, fans packed the stadium again. In the concourse, a vendor stirred the kettle corn with a short scoop, his bare hands spinning around the salty snack that would be sold by the bagful for $6 apiece.
The Sox wrapped up a 3-1 victory when interim manager Ron Roenicke walked off the field for his post-game press conference. It lasted 67 seconds.
Who wanted to talk about pitching plans when the NBA had just postponed its season after one of its players (at the time) had been diagnosed with the coronavirus?
Major League Soccer followed suit on Thursday morning. The National Hockey League, too.
Finally, MLB joined them, announcing that the season would be “at least” two weeks delayed, likely more (umpire Angel Hernandez told a group of baseball writers after a Yankees game in West Palm Peach, “see you guys in June”).
Why was MLB the last to act when the league is still in the preseason portion of the schedule? Why did the NBA, NHL and MLS have to go first, suspending real games that count in the standings before MLB made a move?
Hopefully none of the players will end up sick, because illness can spread throughout a baseball clubhouse like wildfire. Players have every right to be upset.
Amazingly, some games were still being played on Thursday afternoon before MLB announced its decision.
After the Cardinals’ 3-0 win over the Marlins on Thursday afternoon, Cards infielder Matt Carpenter told the New York Times that it “felt like the most meaningless game in the history of the sport.”

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