MLB has a Covid-19 outbreak just 3 games into the season: Where do we go from here?

Four days into its attempt to stage a season despite a pandemic, baseball is facing its first team-wide outbreak of COVID-19.

On Sunday afternoon, prior to their game against the Philadelphia Phillies, four Miami Marlins players tested positive for Covid-19. Just after 9 am Monday morning reports came out that 7 more players had tested positive.

MLB and its players have been very uneasy about even having a season this year, resulting in many opting out entirely. So the reaction to the news of an outbreak of up to 12 members of the Marlins testing positive really shook the industry.

The reactions were far-ranging — How did the virus spread? Were the protocols followed closely enough? Will baseball in 2020 survive this? — to the intensely personal.

In the hours before Major League Baseball postponed Monday night’s game at Citizens Bank Park between the Phillies and the Yankees, Yankees players expressed hesitance about using the same space the Marlins had just vacated.

Another player, who was in uniform for Sunday’s Phillies-Marlins game, arrived at a sobering conclusion: “Probably shouldn’t have played yesterday.”

As the Yankees, Phillies, Marlins and Orioles all sat out of their scheduled games today for safety protocol, the rest of the league powered on.

On a Zoom call with the media, Nationals Manager Davey Martinez was visibly distraught over the news. He admitted that his level of concern “went from an 8 to about a 12.” A year ago, a heart problem sideline him for part of the season.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Martinez said. “I’m scared.”

The sudden outbreak gave the league a reminder of the invisible enemy that they’re up against this season. There is no bubble city like the NBA and NHL have, which has proved to work. Teams are now even more fearful of traveling across the country, and have pondered if the experimental season is even worth playing anymore.

The Phillies were slated to undergo testing on Monday and Tuesday. A Rutgers lab can get results returned rapidly, but the Phillies will still be in a lost situation. The incubation for COVID-19 anywhere from two to five days — meaning any Phillies who were theoretically infected on Sunday might not test positive until later in the week.

The life expectancy of the MLB season might depend on the outcome of the Phillies’ tests. If there was no evidence of transmission onto their roster, the season could stay on the rails. But an expansion of the outbreak could derail the entire endeavor, leaving baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to decide whether the game will go on.

“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” tweeted pitcher David Price, who opted out of the season. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! 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.”

Word of Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez being diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle — believed to be possible fallout from his bout with COVID-19 — had already caught the attention of players in clubhouses across the league. The outbreak only amplified the stakes.

“If anyone is in danger, the safety is the most important thing,” Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom said. “You can’t expose people. You see the pitcher with the Red Sox just developed some heart conditions. If I was in a decision-making place, my conscience, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I knew I put people in danger. You’ve got to make hard decisions.”

As Opening Day loomed, industry people braced themselves for sloppy play, a rash of injuries, and the possibility of an outbreak once teams began the arduous task of traveling during a pandemic. All three felt inevitable. All three have come to pass, with the outbreak now being treated as an expected outcome, even if it is a public-health crisis.

Some within the game looked for reasons to push forward, expressing trust in baseball’s stringent protocols. Others viewed the outbreak as proof that the rules aren’t enough.

“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.”- one MLB executive said via a Zoom call.

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.”

Throughout opening weekend there were signs that players were taking the threat seriously. When Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia reached base, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo offered a dollop of hand sanitizer. When masked Pirates manager Derek Shelton stormed onto the field to argue a call, he stood six feet away from umpire Jordan Baker, who did not respond until he put on his own mask.

The MLB gave each team a lengthy manual of protocols to follow on and off the field. During the two week Summer camp players seemed to follow it. But once the season began, old behaviors came flooding back.

Despite rules that explicitly banned the practice, there was spitting. Walk-offs were celebrated with the typical gusto, in close quarters. High fives were exchanged in dugouts.

Angels manager Joe Maddon echoed a common sentiment within the sport:

“It’s really important to trace how it occurred,” he said. “That’s the one thing we need to know first before we jump to any conclusions. If there was a breach of protocol from one of those players then it becomes more explainable. If not then it becomes more problematic.”

Whatever the reason, the outbreak shined a brighter light on the hurdles that baseball must clear to push forward. For instance, one executive noted that playing Sunday’s game had been left to players. It was a particularly questionable decision given baseball’s culture of playing through injuries.

The Marlins were scheduled to play their home opener on Monday night. They instead remained quarantined at a hotel in Philadelphia. They’re awaiting test results, though one executive raised doubts about when the Marlins would return to the field.

“I don’t think you can find a doctor who will say the Marlins can play in the next week,” the executive said. “It doesn’t matter if they have cleared tests. It can be incubating in their body for a few days before it will show up in a test.”

Last month, Manfred said that competitive integrity would serve as a guide should he be forced to make a call on the season. Now the Marlins’ season may be in danger, the Phillies could be right behind them, and the Blue Jays began the year without a move-in-ready home field. All served as a reminder of the pandemic’s reach within baseball.

All this concern and outbreak before teams even traveled for their first road trip of the season. The challenge of keeping players safe will only become more daunting with travel.

In Case You Missed It

“Today We Are One”: MLB Opens With A Powerful Message

Andre Roberson’s 2 1/2 Year Journey Back to the NBA

Leave a Reply