Cubs, other players see 'nightmare' in coronavirus that MLB doesn't

Gordon Wittenmyer
NBC Sports Chicago

Three more major-league players opted out of the 2020 season in the last two days as the Marlins and Cardinals dealt with coronavirus outbreaks that threaten to force a league shutdown.

They included Brewers All-Star center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who cited "the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time" in a statement Saturday.

If there's anything more surprising than Cain's decision on the day another Brewers game against the Cardinals was postponed because of more COVID-19 cases among the Cards, it might be that more players didn't follow him out the door.

"It's a crazy time that we're in," Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said. "You can't second-guess anybody that wants to make a decision like that."

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Not when Major League Baseball opts all in through a Marlins cluster of more than half its roster and a Cardinals outbreak that jumped from two to at least five with Saturday morning's latest test results - tracking and counting infections of the virus with the cold efficiency of numbers in a box score to determine its next move.

Are 18 Marlins too many to replace from the 60-player pool? How many Cardinals are too many? If the incubation period for the virus is up to 10-14 days, are five days of postponements enough, if players stay in their hotel rooms and get tested every day?

All the baseball-schedule calculus applied to the infection numbers and rates coincides with memos the past week from the commissioner to teams emphasizing stricter adherence to safety protocols and mandating each team assign a compliance officer to monitor players.

It also coincides with veiled threats from commissioner Rob Manfred to players through a conversation with the union leader and an interview on MLB Network in which he said: "The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general, and there is no reason to quit now."

Tell that to Cain, or the Giants' Buster Posey or the Marlins' Isan Díaz, who saw enough with his own team to pack up and head home Friday.

The commissioner isn't the one on the planes or in the hotels or exposed to the opponent with all those coronavirus cases.

"This is a health thing," Cubs shortstop Javy Báez said. "We've got to think about our family, the things that could happen to our family. … You could get this virus any way."

So far the Cubs haven't had a player express a desire to opt out since outfielder Mark Zagunis made that decision while on the South Bend squad as the season opened, general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday.

And the vast majority of players have been clear about their desire to play this season. Many also have been just as clear about wanting safe workplaces and wanting league and team officials to treat health risks as seriously as economic risks.

"We have had to be fluid," Manfred said during that same MLB Network interview, "but it is manageable."

Until the virus does what to how many players?

That's the thing - the health thing.

"I don't see it as a nightmare," Manfred said earlier in the week when talking about the Marlins outbreak that already had grown to 15 players and forced a postponement of their next two series as players remained quarantined in Philadelphia hotel rooms.

The Cubs, by contrast, have been borderline paranoid in their precautions, some of which exceeded MLB's safety protocols from the start. They're the only team in the league that hasn't had a player test positive since intake testing began last month.

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"I don't know Rob's situation, and I don't want to put my foot in my mouth on that one," Lester said when asked about Manfred's apparent finger pointing at players for putting the league schedule in jeopardy.

"But I do know," he added, "that not only the players but families are making sacrifices day in and day out - like I said, I don't want to put my foot in my mouth. I guess I'll stop there."

So what exactly would constitute a "nightmare" for a league trying to stage a 60-game season during a deadly pandemic if not half of a team contracting a virus that has killed more than 152,000 Americans and made hundreds of thousands more severely ill - including current and recent professional athletes such as Atlanta's Freddie Freeman and Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.

"Tommy Hottovy getting it and not making it through it - that's a nightmare scenario," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "My understanding is the guys on the Marlins are doing pretty well with it. This is a virus that has killed a lot of people. As long as guys are getting it with not a lot of symptoms, I guess you could look at it as a positive.

"But as far as whole teams getting it, that's the scary part of this whole thing."

MLB certainly is doing the right thing by postponing Marlins and Cardinals games until doing more testing and contact tracing. And any additional measures that improve safety are good.

But whole teams getting this virus - like we've already seen - is not only scary, but also, without question, a "nightmare."

If it's not, what is baseball even doing here?

If it's not prepared to consider a shutdown over the Marlins outbreak - or at least a season shutdown of that team - what is it waiting for? More severe cases? Somebody the stature of Cain or Posey to leave for a hospital instead home to their families?

Maybe they can stop counting the numbers for their test-result box score long enough to decide what the answer is.

Otherwise, they're leaving it up to Cain and anybody who might follow him to give them another set of numbers to start counting.

"If somebody wants to tap out here, we obviously understand," Báez said. "And we're going to be on the same page with them."

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Cubs, other players see 'nightmare' in coronavirus that MLB doesn't originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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