Justin Turner: From baseball hero to public menace

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner pose for a group picture after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner pose for a group picture after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Credit: Eric Gay

Credit: Eric Gay

In any other year, we’d remember the last game of MLB’s season for Kevin Cash pulling a pitcher who’d been nigh-unhittable in favor of one who’d yielded a run in his past six postseason appearances. That would have been a proper baseball Talking Point: Should the manager have gone with what he was seeing or trusted the Tampa Bay Formula, which is to err on the side of a presumably fresher arm? Debaters, on your marks!

But this, as we know too well, isn’t any other year. It’s 2020, which means ...

We have breaking news!

Shortly after midnight EDT, the burning issue of Blake Snell’s removal had been trumped by a societal stumper. Late in Game 6, word came that Justin Turner, the Dodgers' red-bearded third baseman and longtime team pillar, tested positive for COVID-19. He was removed before the start of the eighth inning. No explanation was offered to the media. After the game ended and the Dodgers' revelry began, Fox studio host Kevin Burkhardt reported Turner’s positive test, and your knee-jerk reaction was, “Tough break. He has to quarantine. No celebration for him.”

But wait! We’re getting live pictures – apologies for the TV-speak – from Arlington! And there, big as life and blatantly unmasked, is Justin Turner! Sitting next to manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor. Sitting not far from Andrew Friedman, the team president who would later say, “If there are people around him without masks, that’s not good optics at all.”

A photo shows Turner hugging closer Kenley Jansen, who was masked but who caught the virus over the summer and has a history of heart issues. TV cameras caught Turner kissing his wife. For some of the celebration, Turner is masked. For the kiss, he and his wife are not.

The questions ask themselves. Was Turner, just crowned a champion, allowed to act like a just-crowned champ and mingle with mates and loved ones? Was he, put simply, allowed to act human?

Or should he, in our time of pandemic, have grasped the greater good? Should he have said to himself, “I have an infectious disease and am a danger to everyone around me; as much as it hurts, I’ve got to lock myself in a room”?

OK, folks. Discuss THAT.

ExploreBaseball says Dodgers’ Turner violated protocols when he returned to field

We’ve been having this conversation, or variations thereof, for seven months, and we as a nation are nowhere close to a consensus. If you take the virus seriously, the jubilant Turner indulged in reckless and possibly criminal behavior. If you don’t, you’re LOL’ing at the scaredy-cat snowflakes. Which side are you on, brother/sister?

One presidential candidate has mocked the other for “wearing the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” The one doing the mocking tested positive and was hospitalized and fed the sort of experimental drugs to which the average citizen would have no access. Feeling much better, that person rode around the hospital two days after his admission to wave to supporters. A day later, he returned to the White House, where his first move was to remove his mask.

Half of us pay attention to the doctors who insist this virus could hit even harder. The other half makes fun of such pencil-necked worrywarts. Whether school is open varies from county to county. Whether it’s possible to attend a ballgame varies from region to region, even week to week. MLB decided to have no fans at games; then, for the NLCS and World Series, it decided a few fans would be OK.

The Big Ten decided in August it wouldn’t be safe to play football this fall; the same Big Ten staged its opening games over the weekend. The Florida coach demanded that his stadium be allowed to reach full capacity for a game against LSU; a few days later, the coach tested positive and the game was postponed. The greatest college coach of this and maybe any century tested positive on a Wednesday; after three subsequent negative tests, he coached his team against Georgia on Saturday. His team won.

The Miami Marlins had 20 positive tests less than a week into the long-delayed baseball season; they wound up making the playoffs. The Braves' best player tested positive in July and ran a 104.5-degree fever; he’ll surely be the National League’s MVP. Such nuggets fed the narrative of baseball as the sport that had triumphed over adversity. By pushing most of its postseason into bubbles, it survived October – always considered the highest hurdle in virus terms – without a positive test. Until Tuesday night.

But now, having seen a player who, according to commissioner Rob Manfred, “was immediately isolated to prevent spread,” celebrating up-close-and-personally with dozens of others – and sitting with the Commissioner’s Trophy to boot – what do we make of baseball vis-à-vis COVID? Yes, it finished it season. It might also, as its closing act, have generated a super-spreader of a celebration.

And what do we make of Justin Turner, baseball hero? Should we fault him for succumbing to human nature? Should we have expected more from him, as opposed to less?

The answer is yes. Once he knew he tested positive, he became a health risk to everyone around him. (Yes, most had already been around him, but he was working with different information then.) It was his responsibility – as a teammate, a grown-up, a citizen – to keep his distance. He did not.

That his teammates lobbied him to participate cuts no ice. It was his decision. He chose poorly. He put his desire to celebrate above all else. In that moment, a baseball hero became a public menace. How’s that for optics?

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