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Fauci throws 1st pitch, players kneel, Soto out with virus as strange MLB season begins


The Nationals and Yankees knelt in unison before the first game of the baseball season as part of an opening day ceremony Thursday night that featured references to the Black Lives Matter movement, the coronavirus pandemic — including an off-the-mark first pitch by Dr. Anthony Fauci — and the home team’s 2019 championship.

Players from both clubs wore T-shirts saying Black Lives Matter during batting practice at Nationals Park, and the letters “BLM” were stenciled into the back of the mound at the centre of the diamond.

In a poignant reference to the racial reckoning happening in the U.S., players and other members of both teams held a long black ribbon while standing spaced out along the two foul lines. After they placed the ribbon on the ground, everyone then got on their knees.

They all then rose for a taped performance of the national anthem.

Yankees players decided Wednesday they wanted to kneel for 60 seconds before the anthem. New York officials then asked Washington if that time could be added to the pregame script. The Nationals decided they wanted to join the Yankees.

“We’ve had conversations as an organization. We’ve had conversations as a team. We’ve had smaller group conversations. Conversations with one another,” New York manager Aaron Boone said hours before the game. “And we’ve kind of decided … we’ll, as a team, have our own demonstration on the field.”

WATCH | Astros prepare for season amid scrutiny over cheating scandal:

Major League Baseball is back without fans in the stands, but while the return of baseball may be a comforting distraction for a country almost completely overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, politics now permeate every aspect of the game in the U.S. 2:07

That display followed a series of videos shown on the outfield scoreboard: about Black Lives Matter, showing major league players such as New York’s Aaron Judge and Washington’s Howie Kendrick; about the Nationals’ post-season run; about the COVID-19 outbreak.

Without any spectators present to appreciate the celebrations, flags noting the franchise’s first title were raised beyond right field and above the scoreboard, and “2019 World Champions” was written on a red mat that was wrapped around the batter’s boxes during pregame introductions.

Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, was invited by the Nationals to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — a fitting choice during the current medical crisis. Wearing a mask on the mound, Fauci sent his toss well wide of home plate, and the ball bounced past his “catcher,” Washington reliever Sean Doolittle.

Afterward, Fauci and Doolittle tapped gloves, instead of shaking hands.

Hours later in Los Angeles, the Giants and Dodgers held a black ribbon that wound along the baselines in a show of unity after pregame introductions. Anthem singer Keith Williams Jr. stood in the new centre field seating at Dodger Stadium to perform instead of the usual spot near home plate. Some of the Giants kneeled during the performance.

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, who signed a 12-year, $365 US million contract on Wednesday, and some of the Giants kneeled during the performance.

In a video, 98-year-old Rachel Robinson, whose husband, Jackie, broke the major league colour barrier in 1947, gave the traditional call: “It’s time for Dodger baseball.”

Judge got the first hit of the season and moments later teammate Giancarlo Stanton tagged Washington ace Max Scherzer for the first home run of the season.

In the bottom of the first inning, Adam Eaton homered off prized Yankees newcomer Gerrit Cole.

The game went into a rain delay in the sixth inning with the Yankees batting while leading 4-1.

WATCH | MLB returns under unusual circumstances:

As it prepares to resume during the pandemic, Major League Baseball is also wrestling with the legacy of a cheating scandal involving World Series champions, the Houston Astros. 8:21

Earlier Nationals slugger Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19 and was put on the injured list , forcing him to miss the start of the game.

“You feel bad for him. He’s a great player. The fans want to see him. And it affects our lineup,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said as he announced Soto’s test less than five hours before the 2019 World Series champions were scheduled to host the New York Yankees on opening day.

“But what can you do about it?” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to play ball. … We’re going to have to win without our best guy. It’s a challenge.”

Soto, a 21-year-old left fielder who was a breakout star of last post-season, will be sidelined until he can come up negative on two consecutive coronavirus tests.

“He’s asymptomatic,” Rizzo said. “He’s following all major league protocols.”

Rizzo said the Nationals had done contact tracing to check whether other members of the organization had been exposed.

“At this time, there’s nobody else unavailable because of the contact tracing,” Rizzo said.



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