After weeks of negotiation between players and owners, “Summer Camp” and a few practice games, Major League Baseball began a shortened season last week. While there was skepticism from many about whether this was the safe or right thing to do, MLB put together a 113-page Operations Manual which was supposed to address concerns about exposure to the novel coronavirus. It was never going to be easy to follow the protocols laid out in the manual, but some — including the Cubs — seemed to be taking things seriously.
Maybe this could work out after all, I thought.
And then came Sunday, when the Miami Marlins had 14 members of their traveling party test positive and they played their game in Philadelphia anyway. This led to a cascade of cancellations, from the Marlins’ flight home to two games Monday, the Marlins hosting the Orioles and the Phillies hosting the Yankees, since the visitors clubhouse (and other areas) of Citizens Bank Park then had to be cleaned and sanitized. And were other teams exposed? The Marlins played a couple of practice games against the Braves last week. Both of the Braves’ top two catchers tested positive. Was that a coincidence? (Sure seems possible it wasn’t.)
And then Commissioner Rob Manfred made an appearance on MLB Network Monday and it was generally considered a disaster:
On conference call with owners today, Manfred said there were no serious discussions about stopping the season: "We believe the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe."— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) July 27, 2020
It is beyond a dereliction of duty for Rob Manfred to wait the entire day before making a comment of any kind on his sport facing a potential crisis, waiting instead to go on his house network to do so. Great to do an interview, fine, but a a statement was needed far sooner— Erik Boland (@eboland11) July 27, 2020
Always a good sign when the commissioner of a sport that has been back for four days goes on television and says: “I don’t put this in the nightmare category.”— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) July 27, 2020
Yeah, Rob, it’s pretty much in the “nightmare category.” Four days into this shortened season and there’s already an outbreak of COVID-19 on at least one team and that’s not a nightmare? What world is he living in?
Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark wrote this detailed article about Monday’s events, which you should read, but most importantly they spoke at length to Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s Oxford College. All of what Dr. Binney said is worth reading, but I was particularly taken by this:
The Marlins remained in Philadelphia on Monday, awaiting their next wave of test results. Depending upon how those results turned out, those games might now be played at Camden Yards, where the teams already were scheduled to begin a two-game series Wednesday, sources said. Under the makeshift plan, the non-infected Marlins players would take a bus from Philadelphia to Baltimore, and members of the team’s 60-player pool would replace those who had tested positive.
“This is absolutely insane … if possible, the literal stupidest possible plan,” Binney said on Twitter. “You have a raging outbreak, anyone in the Marlins traveling party could be infected regardless of how their tests come back. So by all means, just bring that on the road to Baltimore!”
Well, that’s exactly the problem. Once the infected players and staff begin traveling to other cities, the spread of the virus through MLB personnel could become more widespread. Binney added:
“I don’t think MLB necessarily needs to scrap the season just yet. I think that would be a little bit of an overreaction,” Binney said. “But they need to think very seriously about the results of the investigation in Miami and (decide) if this can be fixed, or if this is likely to be a one-off, or if it’s likely to happen again and again.
“I think that if you saw the situation in Miami repeated for another team, that’s when you’d have to think very seriously about suspending the season.”
Tuesday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a noted Washington Nationals fan and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed the same thought:
“This could put it in danger,” said Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. “I don’t believe they need to stop, but we just need to follow this and see what happens with other teams on a day-by-day basis.
Fauci made his comments on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“Major League Baseball — the players, the owners, the managers — have put a lot of effort into getting together and putting protocols that we feel would work,” Fauci said. “It’s very unfortunate what happened with the Miami (Marlins).”
Baseball people expressed concern. From Rosenthal and Stark’s article:
Nationals manager Dave Martinez, who has a heart condition, said his level of concern went from an “8 to a 12” and acknowledged being “scared.” Dodgers left-hander David Price, who opted out of the season, said in a tweet, “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players’ health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”
It’s been clear from the beginning of all of this that health wasn’t the owners’ top concern:
Some important words missing here. "Health" is one of them. https://t.co/JZ0LHPYCb5— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) July 27, 2020
It’s gonna take a whole lot for Manfred’s bosses to pass on that playoff TV money. https://t.co/DLZ9HmYY6V— Jorge Castillo (@jorgecastillo) July 27, 2020
You only need to look at @MLB vs. @NBA to see difference between a responsible commissioner & a reckless one. Covid rules in NBA are *extremely* strict, violators out of game, all science-based. MLB is weak rules & magic thinking. Look which one's working out well & which badly.— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) July 27, 2020
Speaking of the NBA, they’re running the resumption of their league in a bubble in Orlando, Florida — right in the middle of a state that’s had a large increase in the number of COVID-19 cases recently. Maybe MLB’s three-state bubble idea might have actually worked, if, as Kurt Eichenwald said in his tweet, the rules had been enforced strictly. It doesn’t seem to have happened in baseball, because if all personnel on the Marlins had followed the protocols, they likely wouldn’t have had the outbreak which now threatens not just their season, but everyone’s.
I am conflicted here. I love baseball — and so do you, or you wouldn’t be reading this — and missed it terribly through the hiatus. I’ve gotten into watching the games, and even with no one in the ballparks it feels somewhat like a normal part of summer. I also believe that it’s possible to believe one thing (go ahead and play) at one time and then change one’s mind (consider shutting down) due to changes in facts and circumstances.
But these facts can’t be ignored: A scout for the Diamondbacks has died of COVID-19. He was only 40 years old. Boston Red Sox lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez had COVID-19 and now has myocarditis, a heart condition that could affect him for the rest of his life.
One thing is for sure: If outbreaks like this happen among players, any thought of having fans in ballparks, if the season continues, should be shelved for good. If MLB’s protocols can’t keep players safe, how could they possibly keep thousands of fans safe?
In this article by Marc Carig and Andy McCullough in The Athletic, two unnamed team executives had sober assessments of where baseball stands right now:
Said one executive: “I think the overall lesson now is that these protocols and testing procedures do not work well enough to keep small outbreaks from becoming large ones.”
Another suggested that baseball simply pull the plug on the experiment, even if the league has given no indication of doing so. “I would rather take the money hit, and we all just come back in 2021 with months of planning,” the team official said. “This was duct-taped together and nobody is following the fake rules anyway.”
The latter executive, I believe, is correct. Yes, MLB will take a huge “money hit” if they pull the plug right now, after only a few games have been played and before the big infusion of dollars expected if they get to postseason play. “Months of planning” would be a great way to approach a 2021 season, especially if MLB shut down now and actually had owners and players sit down and negotiate an extension of the collective-bargaining agreement so that the sport wouldn’t have to play a 2021 season under the cloud of a possible labor stoppage when it’s over.
At this time I think it’s the prudent thing to do for MLB to consider shutting things down. They tried, after only a few days they had issues and those issues could get worse. The protocols didn’t work, for at least one team, and possibly others.
It would be nice to have baseball. I no longer think it’s safe to do so. MLB needs to seriously think about stopping play.
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