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Pandemic Baseball Chronicles: Phillies shut down after positive tests, Joe Kelly goes headhunting and Nick Markakis opts back in

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It’s been a wild week for MLB

Joe Kelly makes a face towards the Astros dugout after two pitches when up and in on Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

All eyes in baseball are currently on Philadephia.

After 16 of the Marlins 30 players tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend the question was clear: was it possible the Phillies could avoid any positive tests after playing the Marlins on Sunday? It seemed impossible to me, but as of yesterday afternoon baseball seemed cautiously optimistic that a five-day layoff would clear the Phillies to resume their schedule on Saturday:

Those hopes were dashed this morning when a Phillies coach and home team clubhouse staffer both tested positive for the coronavirus:

Jayson Stark clarifies that “until further notice” means at least a week:

While there are still no positive cases among Phillies players the news seems grim for the MLB season. No one is sure how the Marlins outbreak started - you can read some speculation and rumors here — but at this point the only reason that matters is a blame game and whether some members of the Marlins will lose pay. It seems pretty clear the virus has made the jump to the Phillies clubhouse and MLB now has two teams in the Eastern Division shutdown.

Not to be too craven about this whole thing but the Phillies are a team that most baseball observers expected could compete in 2020. I’ll be totally clear, I do not think being in contention should be an issue when health and safety is at stake, but some people have speculated that the reason MLB was willing to shutdown the Marlins indefinitely was directly related to the team’s ability to contend in 2020. That cannot be said of the Phillies.

Al has already covered the stricter protocols MLB will put in place in a quixotic attempt to continue the 2020 season, but I thought this quote from Jeff Passan’s piece on ESPN last night was the most succinct indict of MLB’s planning to date (emphasis mine):

Nowhere does the 113-page protocol that governs the 2020 season explicitly address how the league would handle a coronavirus outbreak, let alone one the magnitude of the Marlins’. It offers neither a threshold of cases to shut down a team n a scenario that would cause a pause in the season. For a document as detailed and pedantic as MLB’s operations manual, the lack of specificity on literally the entire reason for its existence — the presence of a global pandemic — has been a glaring omission, multiple general managers said leading up to the season.

It also was intentional, with the league seeking flexibility in its actions. The virus’ infiltration of the Marlins this week proved seminal, finally putting a number on the lowest figure baseball is willing to stomach without shutting down operations beyond the heart of an outbreak: 18 positive tests, including 16 players — 48% of those traveling with the team.

As of this writing the number of Marlins cases have increased to 17 players and 19 members of the traveling party and it appears two teams being shutdown for an indefinite amount of time won’t trigger a end to the season. I don’t even dare wonder what could get them to call the season off at this point.

One thing it seems like the Marlins outbreak will trigger is the possibility of seven-inning games in doubleheaders as you might have noticed from Matt Gelb’s tweet above. Britt Ghiroli reported that the MLBPA is considering that rule change:

Everyone expected that there would be fireworks in the Dodgers-Astros series and they were not wrong. Reliever Joe Kelly “lost control” of a couple of fastballs that went behind both Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. Despite MLB’s health and safety protocols “strictly prohibiting” fighting, the benches cleared and a brawl almost occurred [VIDEO].

The SportsNetLA team alluded to players “trying their best” to social distance after the benches cleared, but I didn’t see any serious attempt at social distancing. I also saw very few masks. Kelly received an eight-game suspension for his actions, and while many have speculated that will be reduced on appeal, I hope it isn’t. Throwing 96+ miles per hour at any player’s head for any reason should be punished under normal circumstances, but Kelly’s actions risked the health of every player of the field by clearing the benches. That just cannot happen if players are going to stay healthy playing baseball in a pandemic.

Apparently watching baseball from his couch was too much for Braves outfielder Nick Markakis who had opted out of the season after talking to teammate Freddie Freeman about COVID-19. Markakis has elected to opt back into the 2020 season according to EPSN:

“Sitting at home, watching these guys compete ... and all the risks they’re going through going out there, in the pit of my stomach I felt I wanted to be out there,” Markakis said.

He said he realized returning was possible after a phone call from Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos earlier this week.

For all of the Markakis’ out there watching baseball, though, there are many fans who just can’t stomach watching players take on the risk of playing in the pandemic. Sheryl Ring at Beyond the Boxscore isn’t watching — and she argues it isn’t moral for the rest of us to be watching either:

Let’s think about that in the context of Major League Baseball in 2020. The probability that COVID-19 will spread from one baseball player to another when they aren’t wearing masks or socially distancing - both of which are extremely difficult to do whilst playing baseball - is extremely high. What’s the gravity of the resulting harm? Heart damage, in the case of Eduardo Rodriguez. Grave illness, in the case of Freddie Freeman. Death, in the case of tens of thousands of Americans.

So what are we watching with Major League Baseball? We are watching good men die in slow motion. By watching, we are paying MLB for the privilege, for the players don’t get all that much of the money that we spend on MLB.tv subscriptions or local broadcast deals. In other words, MLB wants us to be accomplices in its crime.

When MLB is back - really back, safely back - I will be there.

Until then, I refuse.

I will continue to watch baseball despite my vast skepticism of the sufficiency of MLB’s health and safety protocols. But Ring’s argument highlights the moral complexity involved in previously simple decisions this season — including just sitting down each night to enjoy a pandemic baseball game.