In mid-March MLB shut down Spring Training right as the entire sports world hit pause. I’ll never forget how surreal it felt watching the Cubs play in a crowded training facility as the news broke that the NBA was shutting down. We all knew baseball was next, although I doubt any of us knew how long and complicated of a shutdown loomed.
I don’t need to remind anyone here about the ugly contract negotiations that followed. And it honestly barely matters today if you thought that MLB and the owners were right or sided more with the MLBPA. It turns out the entire negotiation was premised on the existence of a sufficiently robust testing protocol for players and staffs that just doesn’t exist.
The 101-page document that details MLB’s testing protocols mandates testing for players and staff every other day and sets the standard for players to be deemed COVID-19 free: two negative tests. It also sets rigorous social distancing standards and bans certain practices like spitting, or being in the dugout. I got a personal kick out of the idea that fighting was now “strictly” prohibited, as if changing an adjective made a long-standing rule stronger.
But while we were all focused on money and the number of games, it seems like the real weakness in this plan was always in MLB’s actual capacity to run the testing protocol it promised. Less than one week after players reported to their respective teams two teams canceled workouts because of delays in testing results, two others delayed their workouts in the hopes of receiving those tests back, and Nick Markakis joined David Price, Ian Desmond, Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman, Tyson Ross, Welington Castillo, Felix Hernández and Joe Ross in just sitting 2020 out. Markakis cited a conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman and alarm about how sick Freeman was with COVID-19 as a deciding factor:
Here's @Braves outfielder Nick Markakis explaining why opting out of the 2020 season was the right decision for him and his family. pic.twitter.com/vea0apNQeV— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) July 6, 2020
The silver lining in Freeman’s case is that The Athletic reported on Saturday that he never made it in to a Braves workout. That does not necessarily seem to be true in other team’s cases, as a handful of players reported over the weekend that they were waiting on test results as they headed to the park, from the Athletic’s Brittany Ghiroli:
While MLB released an official statement Friday saying that the first intake results totaled just 1.2 percent (38 out of 3,185) of those tested, it comes with an important caveat: a vast majority of teams had incomplete or pending results. They were not able to submit those to the league by the deadline.
“This has to get fixed,” said Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who — as usual — provided honest, articulate commentary about an unprecedented endeavor. “There is a lot of players right now that are trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s where I am.”
Doolittle has been tested four times, half of which have taken longer than 48 hours to get results. As he spoke on Sunday over Zoom, he paused for a minute to check his cell phone. Still no results from Friday’s test.
Doolittle’s decision to speak out lead the Nationals to cancel workouts on Monday. They were joined by the As, whose tests were still in San Francisco waiting to be shipped on Sunday. The Cardinals and Angels also postponed workouts on Monday, although it was unclear the Cardinals postponement was due to testing.
I’m not really a fan of mincing words so let me be clear: This is an unmitigated disaster for any hope of a 2020 season. Even if you take MLB and the testing facility at their word that the delays were limited and the result of the Fourth of July holiday the current situation is unacceptable. The Athletic obtained a message A’s General Manager David Forst sent to the team and I’ll let him speak for himself:
At this point, the blame lies with CDT and MLB and I won’t cover for them like I did earlier today. Despite having our schedule a week ahead of time, they didn’t alert us to the possibility of any complications around July 4th, and once there were issues, they did nothing to communicate that to us or remedy the situation until Nick (Paparesta, the A’s head athletic trainer) and I forced the issue at various times today. If possible, I’m as frustrated and pissed as you are (well, probably not as pissed as Matt is), and I assure you the rest of the staff is as well.
Which begs the question of priorities: What exactly did MLB do with the 100+ days they had to prepare to attempt to bring the sport back during the pandemic other than stonewall labor negotiations and try to convince all of us the players were greedy? It seems incredulous, but unavoidable, that MLB made the myopic miscalculation that the primary issue with baseball in 2020 was economic rather than public health related. They had 100+ days to get this protocol right and plan for known complications like the Fourth of July, and they just... didn’t.
Susan Slusser has tweeted portions of MLB’s response and I highly recommend you read both tweets, but honestly I really think there is little they could say to excuse themselves right now. MLB network has a planned special to celebrate the announcement of the season tonight, they should probably dedicate that time to a question and answer on the testing protocol and steps that are being taken to ensure nothing like the delays of the last weekend happen again. As Kris Bryant told reporters, including the Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma earlier today: “This is the easy part.” (More on KB’s comments in this article by Al.)
Kris Bryant's full answer on testing issues we're seeing throughout baseball right now, which includes this quote, "I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe and I would be comfortable. Honestly, I don't really feel that way." pic.twitter.com/1BdbHrPWWJ— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) July 6, 2020
MLB spent time that should have been devoted to player health and safety trying to play hardball on salaries. This is the result of those priorities. If the league can’t get the easy part of COVID-19 testing right, I have a hard time seeing how players trust them with the health of themselves and their families for even a 60-game season this year.