What would it have taken to keep Justin Turner out of last night’s World Series celebrations? Physically, logistically, how could he have been stopped, and who could have done it? These are strictly practical questions, and they’re a helpful way of thinking about the larger issue: Who is to blame for Turner’s presence on the field—maskless, even, for part of it—after he’d been pulled from the game earlier in the night for what later reporting revealed to have been two positive COVID-19 tests, meaning Turner has COVID-19, meaning he was exhaling particles of the pandemic coronavirus when he breathed. It’s a way of mapping institutional dereliction and failure.
Justin Turner is 35 years old, and far closer to the end of his ballplaying career than to the beginning. He has been a professional baseball player for 14 years, a big-leaguer for 11, and a full-time baseball player for, effectively, his entire conscious life. Last night very likely was his last game as a Los Angeles Dodger; it was also his first—and, going by the odds, likely his only—World Series win. It is no stretch to guess that the end of last night’s game was the culmination of Justin Turner’s life’s pursuit, a moment he has been envisioning and striving toward, a goal that has been motivating him to some degree or another, since he was a young kid. Imagine working your whole life toward some ludicrous far-flung goal and then being told, on the very doorstep of what might be your only and last opportunity to actually accomplish it, two measly innings from the mountaintop, Hey, sorry, you’re gonna have to sit this one out, you have germs.
The point here is not to argue that Justin Turner should have been on the field for those celebrations. He shouldn’t have been; it’s unacceptable that he was. But a person in Justin Turner’s circumstances—one experiencing, according to his own statement on the matter, no symptoms of sickness—will want more than anything to celebrate their World Series win on the field with their teammates, and will view the invisible risk as tolerable in return for the uniquely compelling reward. People in his teammates’ circumstances will not want to exclude their teammate—a comrade and maybe a friend with whom they’ve been sharing a dugout and locker rooms and hotel rooms and baseball’s stunted teen-boy culture through all manner of grossness—from this once-in-a-lifetime moment of joy and catharsis just because he might be sick even though he seems fine. It’s no good not to be realistic about this. If any of them, Turner or his Dodgers teammates, had any say in determining whether he’d participate in the postgame ceremonies, then they made reckless, shortsighted, irresponsible decisions. But that is what people will do in extraordinary circumstances.
If you believe in having institutions of authority—in having clearly communicated sets of rules and laws and, if need be, penalties for violating them; in having officials with the authority to enforce them; in having society, in other words—then the best reason for and primary benefit of having those institutions is so that decisions about those sorts of things will not automatically fall to the very people most compromised by exigent circumstance. So that the lines will be clear and bright and visible from miles away, and in their clarity and brightness also fair. So that somebody can step in and say Nope, sorry, them’s the rules and the only response is OK, yep, I did in fact know in advance that them’s indeed the rules.
So that, in other words, nobody can say what Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last night:
“I think for him, being a free agent, not knowing exactly how the future is gonna play out, I don’t think anyone that was gonna stop him from going [onto the field].”
The problem is that institutional baseball all along has been making this shit up as it goes, at every turn subordinating even minimally responsible pandemic precautions to its commercial imperatives of staging a season and postseason and crowning a World Series champion on television, at all costs. It was making shit up months ago when the first positive player tests showed up and it flagrantly invented ad hoc protocols on the fly for the purpose of performing a theater of pandemic rigor without disrupting the schedule too much. It was making shit up when it allowed Miami Marlins players to decide, via group text message, to play a game on the same day they’d learned that day’s scheduled starting pitcher and two others had tested positive for COVID-19. It was making shit up when it sent the Athletics and Mariners out to play a doubleheader in a cloud of poisonous wildfire smoke so thick outfielders had trouble tracking fly balls and the players had to play in masks. Who even could make the deeply arbitrary choice to flex institutional authority at the absolute pinnacle of Justin Turner’s professional life, when every seat of power in the sport had happily abdicated responsibility any number of times for the express purpose of producing that moment? Could anyone? Does the institutional authority even exist?
The bleak lesson of 2020—really, the bleak lesson of so much of the history of this society, but one the year 2020 seems hell-bent on teaching—is about the futility of individual responses amid institutional failure. This is how the real bad actors, the ones with the power to actually make significant changes, want things: with responsibility for containing the pandemic, or arresting climate change, or addressing systemic inequality and social injustice, litigated in society as matters of scattered individual choice. If baseball failed to contain the pandemic, well then it was because no individual person made the individual choice to thwart Justin Turner’s deeply human desire to celebrate the happiest moment of his life with the teammates who’d shared the journey with him, and not because Major League Baseball had a duty to provide and adhere to clearer and firmer protocols from the beginning. If a campaign rally doubles as a superspreader event, well, heck, we passed out masks, but it’s not like the literal president of the United States can just insist people wear them at an affair he’s hosting. If your preferred party loses an election, it’s because individuals selfishly withheld their vote, not because the party had, and fell short of, any responsibility to reach those people and earn their support. If the natural world swelters to death, well then it’s because not enough people bought electric cars or metal straws, not because neoliberal governments deferred to the corporate world for meaningful changes it wouldn’t make until forced by market imperatives, if then, if ever.
If that’s all a bit far afield for your tastes in a morning-after World Series blog, well, fine. But somebody, some one or some body of people, did have the power to keep Justin Turner out of last night’s celebration, to lift off of him and his teammates the impossible burden of making that choice in the heat of the moment. The time to exercise that authority was months ago, and every day between then and now, with bare-minimal integrity and rigor and at least some rock-bottom sense of social obligation. By last night it was already far too late for any of that.