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Pandemic Baseball Chronicles: Et tu, World Series?

The Dodgers pulled Justin Turner from Game Six after he Tested Positive for COVID-19 — but he joined the team celebration anyway.

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Dodgers and Braves in game six of the World Series at Globe Life Field
Justin Turner front and center in the Dodgers team picture without a mask.
Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The abbreviated baseball season gave me a lot of joy, or at least periodic breaks from the raging pandemic nightmare we’ve all been living through since March. Since that nightmare shows exactly zero signs of abating, I think those breaks are what passes as joy now.

After a four-month delay that revealed as much about the labor issues the league will face in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement as it did about the the challenges of playing sports in a pandemic, baseball managed to play (most of) a shortened season. The Marlins managed to play 60 games despite an early season outbreak and a lot of seven-inning doubleheaders. The Cardinals somehow squeaked out 58 games and MLB called it good enough.

Rob Manfred was determined to see this season through to the final game of the World Series. The league even negotiated a postseason bubble in an attempt to ensure nothing would interrupt the playoffs and the World Series. They were eight weeks COVID-free as Game 6 began at Globe Life Field in Arlington.

And yet, there it was, once again, looming over the final game of the World Series. The coronavirus hanging over the national pastime the same way it hangs over all of our lives as Justin Turner was pulled from Game 6 after an inconclusive test was confirmed positive during the game. The Dodgers won their first ring since 1988 and they’d love you to think that was the story, but it isn’t now because there are dozens of questions that need to be answered about how Turner wound up maskless and celebrating on the field after testing positive for COVID-19.

Ken Rosenthal has the clearest timeline in his piece for the Athletic earlier today:

MLB said it learned in the second inning that the result of Turner’s test from Monday had been inconclusive; the league had been shipping hundreds of tests from Texas to its lab in Utah each day, and the results typically came back in the early evening. Once the uncertainty about Turner arose, the league asked the lab to expedite his test from earlier Tuesday. When the result came back positive, league officials told the Dodgers to remove Turner from the game.

Why didn’t the league exercise an abundance of caution and get Turner off the field immediately after learning he might be positive? Apparently, because inconclusive results are not uncommon, and the standard procedure was to run a second test.

Turner remained on the field as the second test results were rushed through. Apparently that is standard operating procedure for MLB, but what happened after the game cannot be brushed aside so easily.

That is Justin Turner, returning to the field for the team picture after he’d been told he was positive for COVID and needed to isolate from his teammates. That is a man who knows he’s positive for COVID, removing his mask because I guess masks don’t look great in pictures. That 30 second clip is the 2020 American COVID-19 pandemic, in a nutshell.

MLB is a workplace with protocols for individuals who test positive for the virus and more testing capacity than pretty much every institution in the country except maybe the White House. Their protocols are designed to keep other people and their families safe. Justin Turner decided celebrating a World Series victory on the field without a mask was more important than those protocols and the people they protect, and behaved accordingly.

Rosenthal’s piece has a lot of comments from Turner’s teammates and it is worth reading the whole thing. There is a lot of sympathy for how much Turner means to the team. A lot of players who wanted him on the field, celebrating with them. A recognition that he’s a core member of this Dodgers team. All of that is true and it’s still an incredibly selfish decision to put one celebratory moment above the health of every other member of the team, every member of the media covering the festivities, and all of the family members they will come in contact with, again, from Rosenthal:

Maybe little will come of Turner’s post-game behavior. Maybe he will recover from COVID-19 with minimal difficulty, like most people in his age group, and the vast majority of the Dodgers’ bubble contingent, if not all of it, will avoid infection. Still, some with the Dodgers are higher risk. Roberts is a cancer survivor. Jansen, who had a three-week bout with the virus in July, has a heart condition. At least one of the players’ wives is pregnant.

If other team or family members test positive, the images from Tuesday night will become that much more indelible, that much more regrettable. No one stopped Turner from returning to the field. He also did not stop himself.

Watching the Dodgers’ front office try to rewrite the protocol procedures on the fly last night was some pretty classic gaslighting. Here are the comments from President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, according to Bradford William Davis of the New York Daily News:

When Dodgers President of Baseball Operation Andrew Friedman was asked why the Dodgers didn’t follow the rules during the postgame press conference, Friedman said: “We did.”

“When he came out of the game, he was quarantined in a doctor’s office over to the side.”

OK, but what happened after Turner completed his three-hour quarantine?

“Again, I think a lot of those instances are people who are around different and new people. The fact that we were all in a bubble together means from a contact tracing standpoint, we were all in that web. Now it’s important that we all test negative how many times, or whatever the protocols are, to make sure that we don’t go out and potentially spread it to other people.”

I’ve spent more time than I care to recount reviewing the protocols and procedures for MLB and Friedman is just wrong here. There is no “Well, you can hang out with the guys you’ve been hanging out with since they are already exposed” clause. Just ask the Cardinals who spent almost a week in isolation in a haunted hotel.

In fact, most experts believe that transmission of the coronavirus is basically an equation of exposure to virus multiplied by time, as this govtech article makes clear. Turner being around his teammates for more time after he knew he was positive for the virus is exactly the type of behavior that increases transmission risk.

And then there is MLB. It seems pretty clear that Turner made a personal decision to return to the field despite the risk. The Dodgers did nothing to prevent him from making that decision and enabled it to some extent. Should the league have stepped in to prevent Turner from returning the the field? Well, it turned out that they tried and apparently their oversight is approximately as effective as every other corporate entity trying to enforce safety protocols, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported:

The Dodgers, the best team in the majors in the regular season and postseason, finished off the Rays 3-1 and a celebration began. Commissioner Rob Manfred on national TV said Turner was in isolation. The Dodgers were ordered to mask up for the on-field, post-game euphoria. Turner sent out a tweet thanking those who reached out, declaring he had no COVID symptoms and adding, “Can’t believe I couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys!”

But there he was on the field. Hugging people. Kissing his wife. Eventually sliding mask-less next to the World Series trophy and cancer-surviving manager Dave Roberts to take some photos. MLB security personnel — up to the head of the department — implored Turner to leave the field, according to eyewitnesses. But Turner and several of his teammates, according to the eyewitnesses, stoutly resisted. Security decided they would not forcibly remove Turner over concerns of contact with someone with COVID and recognizing what the optics of a potential tussle with Turner and his teammates could look like on national TV.

Optics. Resistance. An innate human desire to be a part of a moment you’ve worked for your entire life.

The final game of the 2020 World Series wasn’t merely a baseball game - it was a COVID-19 Passion Play that demonstrated why America has one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Too many people believe their celebratory moment is exceptional. Too many people are willing to rewrite the rules and protocols to suit their own moment. No one actually wants to do the hard work of enforcing the rules.

One of baseball’s greatest strengths is its uncanny ability to reflect the best and worst of American society. It seems fitting that the most memorable moment of the 2020 World Series was an individual player defying COVID-19 protocols amidst a team of enablers and a league with no real mechanism to stop him.