July 23 (Reuters) - The Washington Nationals and New York Yankees launched the COVID-19-delayed Major League Baseball season on Thursday, but reminders of the pandemic were everywhere, from a stadium devoid of fans to Dr. Anthony Fauci throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
From players wearing face masks to mandatory testing, the new reality thrust on baseball by the coronavirus was unavoidable despite high-tech efforts to provide a comforting facade with the soothing sounds of a packed ballpark piped into the television broadcast.
The coronavirus has claimed over 143,000 U.S. lives, with the country surpassing more than 4 million cases.
FOX Sports said on Thursday it would use “virtual fans” to provide the illusion of a full stadium during its broadcasts, with thousands of avatars cheering or booing at the push of a button.
Even one of Opening Day’s great traditions, the ceremonial opening pitch, was linked to the pandemic, with Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist and diehard Nationals fan, performing the honors at the team’s park in Washington.
Fauci, who is often seen in public sporting the team’s logo on his face mask, donned a Nationals jersey and cap and unleashed a wild pitch, throwing up his arms as if to say: “What did you expect?”
Hours before Fauci took the mound, Washington learned it would start the abbreviated 60-game regular season without star slugger Juan Soto. The defending World Series champions said he had tested positive for the coronavirus and it placed him on the injured list, where he will stay until he has two negative tests.
The Nationals were already without veteran infielder Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Joe Ross, who both opted to sit out the season because of health concerns related to COVID-19. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Peter Cooney)