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It wasn’t a doubleheader the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics staged on Monday as much as it was a reckoning, one crisis forcing the teams to meet up on what was supposed to be a day off, and another practically choking them out when they did.
This 60-game Major League Baseball season saddles teams with a series of false choices, leaving them throwing a dart and hoping for the best outcomes.
Monday’s decision was particularly grim: Choke on fumes now, or suck wind later?
The A’s and Mariners schlepping to Seattle on an off day resulted from a positive COVID-19 test among Oakland’s traveling party at the end of August, postponing the A’s final game in Houston and a three-game set with Seattle while contact tracing and testing occurred.
Making up two of the games on a mutual off day in Seattle was a no-brainer. What they faced upon arrival was anything but.
Since this doubleheader was scheduled, wildfires have continued ravaging the entire West Coast, with the Pacific Northwest burning at a rate more typically associated with its neighbors to the south.
By the time the teams settled in for the 2:10 p.m. PT start of the twinbill, 13 large fires in Washington had consumed nearly 700,000 acres, according to the Bureau of Land Management. T-Mobile Park has a roof, which was closed, but the entire venue is not enclosed.
The white haze that settled in the stadium has become de rigueur for West Coast games in the days since the wildfires torched 10 states. Yet this day would feature an alarming underlying condition.
The Air Quality Index around T-Mobile Park was well north of 200 by the time the game began. If you’ve spent the past few months wrapping your arms around rolling seven-day averages of positive tests, hospitalization and mortality rates, well, we can relate. A quick refresher on air quality, per the EPA:
Anything from 0 to 50 is good, and 51 to 100 is acceptable. Anything from 101 to 200 can affect those sensitive to poor air quality and, at the higher end, the general public.
An AQI north of 200? That is considered a health alert, in which “the risks of health effects is increased for everyone.”
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A’s manager Bob Melvin acknowledged pregame that the clubs might not play, that he believed an AQI of 200 was believed to be the cutoff. That decision is ultimately up to the teams, MLB and local health officials.
And here’s where the Catch-22 comes into play.
By agreeing to this doubleheader, the A’s committed to 16 games in 13 days. The teams have another mutual off day Thursday, but that would have forced the A’s to fly from Seattle to Colorado on Monday, back to Seattle on Wednesday night for a doubleheader Thursday, and then finally back down to Oakland on Friday.
The clubs meet on the final weekend of the season in Oakland, but are already playing one doubleheader in the middle day of that three-game series. And nobody wants to play three consecutive doubleheaders just days before beginning a best-of-three playoff series.
So play, they did, through a grim haze and with outfielders like Stephen Piscotty wearing facemasks and with an A’s starter, Jesus Luzardo, fading as the game wore on and the smoke infiltrated his lungs.
The same Luzardo who, yes, tested positive for COVID-19 during the team’s summer camp.
“When I came out (the AQI) was at 284,” Luzardo said on a video call with news media after the A’s blew a 5-0 lead and lost the seven-inning game, 6-5. “I’m a healthy 22-year-old. I shouldn’t be gasping for air, or missing oxygen when I’m getting to the line. I’ll leave it at that.”
The exact AQI at T-Mobile Park is a matter of some dispute, but multiple media observations placed it somewhere between 218, 236 or Luzardo’s reported 284. Suffice to say, very unhealthy, regardless of specifics.
It was at 242 by the time Game 2, won 9-0 by the A’s, got started.
“It was pretty smoky out there,” Melvin said after the doubleheader split. “And guys were starting to feel it in the second game some. I think the numbers were pretty high.”
Ideally, the pandemic that caused Luzardo to take ill at the start of the season and the climate change that accelerated the game conditions near its end would both have been better acknowledged and better managed.
Instead, COVID-19’s summer resurgence made it virtually impossible to tip-toe through a baseball season without several outbreaks. And the teams affected are tasked with another impossibility: Hurry up and wait while contact tracing occurs, and then ramp back up and play a bunch of games in a short period of time.
So teams like the Marlins and Cardinals and Phillies and A’s are supposed to binge on baseball with a series of seven-inning doubleheaders, as if the season is a Netflix series and not a physical act of competition among vulnerable humans.
You can kind of imagine, then, the A’s and Mariners’ mindset as smoke covered Seattle: Well, we came this far; let’s get these in and get the hell out of here.
Those blazes are even more extreme, more dangerous, thanks to the effects of climate change, according to any number of climatologists. Situations like Monday’s in Seattle will only increase, and hard choices will have to be made.
MLB plans on playing the final two rounds of the National League playoffs in Southern California. Unfortunately, peak wildfire season in California is actually in September and October, when Santa Ana winds can whip relatively innocent blazes into disasters.
That’s not to say the NLDS and NLCS in L.A. and San Diego will be in any imminent danger. Yet situations like Monday’s in Seattle are not going away. If anything, our reckoning with them has only just begun.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.
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