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Is MLB Really Going to Make the Yankees and White Sox Play Today?

Heading into a doubleheader, MLB doesn't really have a plan, just vibes.

1:09 PM EDT on June 8, 2023

Yankees Stadium on Wednesday. (Bradford Davis / Hell Gate)

In one sense, the White Sox's 3-2 victory over the Yankees in the Bronx on Tuesday night went as expected—the Yankees struggled at the plate without Aaron Judge in the lineup (the reigning MVP was nursing a toe injury).

But, from White Sox reserve Clint Frazier’s perspective, the game was anything but normal. 

"My first thought was, like, 'Are we really playing like this?' When the ball went up in the first few innings, you couldn’t see anything," Frazier told me Tuesday after the Yankees loss. "So that don't feel safe to me."

Frazier, a former Yankee who bounced between the team's Triple-A club and the major leagues between 2017 and 2021, told me his eyes were unusually dry from the smoke billowing in from Canadian wildfires, which made wearing his contacts especially uncomfortable. During the game, Frazier said, he and his teammates shared stories about losing sight of the ball on routine pop-ups if the ball traveled anything more than 15 feet in the air. 

"It's like yeah, this is kind of like, we shouldn't be out here. No one should be out here. But we were out there," he said.

According to Purple Air, the Air Quality Index (AQI) at Yankee Stadium at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday night was around 206. Anything over 200 is considered very unhealthy, with increased health impacts for everyone exposed, not just children and elderly people in the seats, or cancer survivors like Sox closer Liam Hendriks. Despite this, Major League Baseball officials decided that the show must go on.

But 120 miles away in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the league postponed the matchup between the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders and the Norfolk Tides, after AQI at the park had reached a level of 207.6—virtually identical to levels measured in the Bronx—around 30 minutes before the first pitch. 

So why were the Yankees and the Sox playing through the Bronx haze? Who at MLB makes these decisions? Did the guy at league HQ who gets paid to refresh the weather app faint from the smoke?

On Wednesday, when New York City's air quality became the worst in the world, with an AQI soaring into the 400s, the MLB announced that that evening's Bronx matchup was off, as was a Phillies/Tigers game in Philadelphia. According to the Athletic, the league came to that decision by consulting unnamed "medical and weather experts." But the league itself offered very little insight into what factors they weigh when determining whether to play a baseball game during a climate catastrophe. 

I asked Yankees manager Aaron Boone if the league and those experts had a developed protocol for determining when the air is too unsafe for baseball.

"Not to my knowledge, no," he replied. Both Boone and Sox manager Pedro Grifol said that their respective teams canceled outdoor batting practice before Tuesday's game, without getting any advice from the league. Stepping outside was enough to know they shouldn’t be playing. Some players noted they were possibly feeling the effects of the air quality—before Wednesday's game was postponed, Yankees outfielder Willie Calhoun had told the New York Daily News that he was working through some headaches. “I don’t want to say it’s the air,” Calhoun said, “but then again, I don’t get headaches often.”

MLB's solution to Wednesday's lost game was to make it up with a Thursday doubleheader in the Bronx at 4:05 p.m., where the air quality as of the time this story was published was 183 and climbing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow.gov.

Kimberly Garrett, an environmental toxicologist who describes her work as being at "the intersection of environmental toxicology, public health, and environmental justice," told me that a doubleheader naturally meant doubling players' exposure to harmful conditions.

"Inhalational exposure is a function of the concentration, the breathing rate and the breathing volume, along with the duration," Garrett explained. "I don't know if that's something that athletes, as workers, should be exposed to."

Garrett wryly noted that if she were MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, she would not have allowed Tuesday's game to be played, "but I don't think I will ever find myself in charge of any sports."

So is today's doubleheader still happening? How bad will the air quality have to get for the MLB brass to call it off? It's not as if this is the league's first experience with wildfire smoke. When smoke from a 2020 forest fire poisoned Seattle’s air, the league relocated the Mariners’ series against the Giants to San Francisco. We have rainouts, so what makes something a definitive smoke out?

"We consult with Clubs, medical experts, weather experts and others to make a determination of whether it's appropriate to postpone a game," an MLB spokesperson told me in a short email, while declining to state whether today's doubleheader would be canceled. I also asked the Major League Baseball Players Association how they feel about their members running around in smoke and unsafe conditions, and will update if they respond.

Frazier, the veteran outfielder, said he didn't know for sure what was behind MLB's decision-making process, but ventured that it's "probably just a money thing, bro." 

He added, "That's what drives everything anyways."

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