The Good Press — Issue #57: Breakthrough

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In a big New York sports week, playoff basketball returns to Brooklyn and Manhattan, while the wrong end of a “breakthrough” hits the Yankees in the Bronx.

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Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving drives for a layup past Knicks forward Julius Randle
A breakthrough can come in many forms (Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Breakthrough

It’s time once again for playoff basketball in the NBA, and I’m very excited.

The newest wrinkle in the NBA playoffs is a four-team “play-in” round in each conference, with the 7th place team vs. the 8th place team in a one-game matchup where the winner earns the #7 playoff seed and a best-of-seven series vs. the 2nd place team. The losing team gets one more chance to earn the #8 spot if can they defeat the winner of the 9th place vs. 10th place game. In theory, a 10th place team now has a chance to break through and win it all.

The league (and its broadcast partners) could not be happier with the result of that new rule change, because tonight’s game is a one-game mega-matchup of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. 7th and 8th place is not usually where we’d see these two former champions, but nevertheless, we’re in for a treat tonight at 10 pm ET.

With a rather wide-open playoff field this year, I’m eager to see how my Brooklyn Nets fare as they pursue their first NBA championship. Despite injury issues affecting most of their roster, the Nets had their most successful regular season ever, earning the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference at 48–24. Brooklyn’s trio of superstars, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, appeared in just eight games together during the regular season, but the Nets are getting healthy at the right time, just in time for the postseason.

The top three teams in the East are Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee, respectively, but the big surprise is the #4 seed New York Knicks, who put up a 41–31 record to make their first postseason appearance in eight years. Few expected the Knicks to have such a strong season, but for the first time in a long time, fans have reason to smile at both Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and at Madison Square Garden, and that’s a great thing for New York City sports fans. After so many down years from the plethora of pro sports teams all around the city, championship aspirations are back, and that’s really fun.

If let’s say, the Knicks potentially knocked off top-seeded Philly in the second round and Brooklyn did the same to Milwaukee, that would set up a juicy crosstown Nets/Knicks series with a spot in the Finals on the line. That may not be the most likely playoff outcome, but that’s why they play the games.

No matter who we see in the Finals, it’s going to be a fun ride along the way.

Over on the NYC baseball diamonds, the injury bug has hit Queens hard, though the Mets still find themselves in first place atop their tight division. Their strong pitching and improved roster depth have kept them afloat so far, but they’ll have to continue to tread water until their injury issues improve.

For the Yankees over in the Bronx, however, it’s not just the injury bug that’s caused issues lately, but another familiar bug: the novel coronavirus. Since last week, nine New York Yankees have tested positive for COVID-19: one player (shortstop Gleyber Torres), three coaches, and five staff members. It’s not the first time there has been a COVID outbreak in a baseball clubhouse. What’s notable, however, is that all nine Yankees who tested positive are fully vaccinated, meaning they’re what’s known as “breakthrough” positives.

The CDC has some information and guidance regarding these breakthrough positive cases online, but as one can imagine, news of the New York Yankees losing their All-Star shortstop and others to post-vaccine positives created quite a stir as the outbreak number kept rising over the course of the week.

The positive tests among the Yankees’ party were all after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine (and not the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines that each had higher rates of prevention of any type of infection), though unlike the pre-vaccine outbreaks in 2020, there was no requirement for games to be postponed since the other vaccinated players and staff remain negative. Notably, all of the breakthrough positive Yankees are said to be healthy and asymptomatic now, though one coach reportedly had symptoms briefly after his positive diagnosis; he was apparently symptom-free relatively quickly.

The unexpected crossover event between the CDC and MLB means that this outbreak may end up a breakthrough moment in research on breakthrough positive post-vaccine infections. Most vaccinated people aren’t tested as frequently as baseball employees are, so there is great scientific value in this.

While Nine fully-vaccinated New York Yankees test positive for COVID-19 sounds like an alarming headline, scientists have stressed that these so-called vaccine breakthrough cases are to be expected, So we should exhale.

The vaccine protects against serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. That doesn’t mean that vaccinated people are fully protected from catching COVID and testing positive, though there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) risk of a vaccinated person with a breakthrough positive being contagious.

In Other Words

As sports epidemiologist (yes, there is such a thing) Zach Binney said in a Twitter thread I’ll link below, think of the vaccine as a strong wind blowing in from the outfield that turns home runs into doubles and doubles into outs. The vaccine is good at preventing infection and transmission of COVID-19, but it’s superb at preventing serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.

So the CDC will monitor the situation and they’ll probably gather rather excellent data points from it, but vaccinated people should not be alarmed. COVID-19 may not be fully eradicated, but vaccines blunt it pretty robustly. For the vaccinated, especially those not at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 before, think of the virus as just another airborne illness now.

That being said, I was a bit taken aback by the abruptness of the changes in the CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated people after their overhaul this week. Many had been calling for updated guidance as now more than one-third of Americans are fully vaccinated from the virus, but many were also surprised, as I was, at just how fundamental the changes were in the updated guidance.

NPR’s team of journalists gathered a bunch of information on what exactly the guidelines mean, but keep in mind that new guidelines are not new laws.

As nice as it all sounds, it does feel like the CDC is passing the buck to local municipalities in a way. That may put frontline workers and essential workers at risk. An “honor system” that allows people to claim vaccinated status as an excuse to shun masks is not ideal, and I hope we don’t see people doing that.

Personally, I’m still probably going to mask up indoors in public, especially near people I don’t know. To me, wearing my mask is a symbol of camaraderie and a willingness to protect vulnerable people of all ages who are still at risk. My risk of catching it and spreading it may be low, but masks make it lower.

Parting Thoughts

I greatly enjoyed writing about a few baseball lives in last week’s issue. One of my subjects was Albert Pujols, the future Hall of Fame first baseman who was released from his contract by the L.A. Angels a couple of weeks ago. In a surprise move, the other Los Angeles team, the defending champion L.A. Dodgers, signed Pujols this week after a rash of injuries depleted their roster.

When Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals and joined the Angels in 2012, it was odd at first to see him in a new uniform, but not all that jarring because the Cardinals and Angels wear similar shades of red as a primary uniform color.

Not so much with Dodger Blue.

Albert Pujols wearing his #55 Los Angeles Dodger jersey
Do not adjust your television sets (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images Sport/Getty)

Wearing uniform #55, since his legendary #5 is already worn by Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, playing some first base against left-handed pitching, Pujols believes he’s still got some magic left in that bat. It’s certainly a strange sight though: an all-time great, holding on in the twilight of his career (his 21st season as a major leaguer), with a new uniform color and a funny number.

I will never fault an athlete who still has enough passion to work hard to compete at the highest level if there is a team willing to let him play. Maybe it ends in another championship, maybe it ends in a short stay that we reminisce about years later in disbelief that these pictures are real. Either way, it’s interesting enough for me to keep my eye on. Good luck to him.

This week, my fiancée and I are leaving the friendly confines of the Poconos to make the move back to New York City full-time again for the first time since the end of June 2020. It’s been wonderful to be out in the countryside away from the hustle and bustle, but I’m looking forward to summer in NYC.

Ballgames, museums, and other happenings will be available to us again, and since we’re both fully vaccinated, we feel comfortable dipping our toes back into the waters, for the most part. I favor outdoor ballgames, of course. It may be an adjustment for us, returning to city life after a long time away, but nothing we can’t handle. It’ll be nice to see NYC friends and family again.

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The Good Press

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a newsletter of observations about life, sports, and/or anything else that comes to mind

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