How many sidelined teams and schedule disruptions can MLB's 2020 season withstand?

The problem is the schedule.

Well, actually the problem is that there’s a global pandemic and the United States has done a uniquely, unnecessarily poor job of containing it. But within that context — and the context that is MLB deciding to start the season, at a time of then-record rates for new coronavirus cases, without a secure “bubble” — the problem is the schedule.

Saturday was supposed to be the first day since July 26 — nearly three weeks ago, and only three days into the season — that would feature a full baseball schedule unaffected by COVID-19 disruptions. That is, until a player on the Cincinnati Reds tested positive Friday night. Saturday and Sunday’s games between the Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates have been postponed, perhaps to be made up as a 7-inning doubleheader Monday, which was supposed to be an off day for the Reds.

Now comes the important caveat: Any writing about sports this year should consider the health and safety of players first and foremost, and the impact on communities struggling to protect their populations as a close second. When an MLB player tests positive for the coronavirus, the concern is that he could develop symptoms, or develop severe symptoms, or sustain still unknown long-term effects, or remain asymptomatic but pass the virus to a teammate, or to someone outside baseball who could themselves become very sick, or spread it to someone else who might.

Of course, that risk is inherent in this country right now — baseball season or not. A bubble might have kept players safe from the coronavirus, but at what ethical costs? Especially when you consider that significantly more essential or high-risk populations can’t afford to be safely isolated. Canceling the season outright might have shifted the liability or optics. But for whatever other culpability the commissioner’s office might have this year, the existence of a deadly disease and the dangerously unclear national guidelines does not fall under that particular purview.

“The goal of our protocols is to place [players] certainly at no greater risk than the community risk where they are,” deputy commissioner Dan Halem told Yahoo Sports this week. “So if they weren't playing baseball and they were going about their lives they would have the same risk in either circumstance. But we hope that the risk to them is actually lower than the community risk because of all the things that we're doing that they wouldn't necessarily have access to if they weren't part of baseball.”

That’s certainly self-serving — and impossible to prove or disprove at an individual level — but it’s also probably true. Regular, reliable testing with a quick turnaround for results is key for containing the virus. Most cities don’t have that right now; baseball does. Where federal guidance has been weak and varied, MLB’s has been strict and regimented (whether individuals choose to follow that guidance is another story, although even then the repercussions have been swift.)

Cincinnati Reds' Nick Senzel (15) fields the ball hit for a single by Pittsburgh Pirates' Cole Tucker (3) in the fifth inning during a baseball game at in Cincinnati, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. The Reds won 8-1. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
The Cincinnati Reds received word of a positive COVID-19 test Friday night, and their next two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates have been postponed. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

The league continues to overtly obfuscate their testing data by releasing the number of total tests done and not the number of individuals tested. But still, four positive tests in the past week is less than one percent of baseball’s Tier 1 population, while the national average for positive tests is hovering between 7 and 8 percent this month.

All of that is well and good — except that so far, in practice, playing baseball safely outside a bubble looks like a lot of not playing baseball at all.

In the 23 days since the Nationals hosted the Yankees, just hours after Juan Soto tested positive ahead of missing eight games, 32 games across 12 teams’ schedules have been postponed for coronavirus reasons.

In the lead-up to that inauspicious opening day, MLB was clear publicly and privately that they expected some players to test positive over the course of the season. Anything else would have been delusional. Their protocols, then, were designed for mitigation, containment, and to allow teams to continue unabated by a single positive test. Even when teams favored an abundance of caution in summer camp, canceling workouts in the wake of testing delays or positive tests, the assumption was that they would simply be less cautious during the regular season. To their credit: Aside from that first game in Philadelphia following the first few positive tests on the Miami Marlins, that hasn’t proven to be the case.

This week, I asked a trio of MLB decision-makers about how to reconcile the plan to play through isolated positives — and the assumption that the protocols will protect players even from an infectious teammate — with the reality thus far that where there is one positive test, soon more will follow. MLB has successfully avoided cross-team contamination — on-field interactions do not seem sufficient for contracting coronavirus even from a carrier — but the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have shown how hard it is to contain the spread within a single team. And how the only solution is to stop playing and isolate.

Their response was to stress the ability of contact tracing and continued testing to predict the scope of an outbreak and preemptively act accordingly. But even that takes time. MLB’s statement announcing this weekend’s Reds-Pirates postponements said the games were being suspended “to allow for additional testing and to complete the contact tracing process.”

Precautionary measures are more possible because of the implementation of 7-inning doubleheaders. Those division games will likely be made up at a later date that will make this already packed 60-game season even denser down the stretch. Increasingly, teams are expected to go from quarantining in a hotel to competing again with little or no ramp-up time. Technically non-COVID related (although is anything this year?) injuries already abound. It’s hard to say that any of this is fair.

The Marlins outbreak was not an isolated incident. Neither was the Cardinals. Now with the Reds’ potentially burgeoning outbreak, we’re seeing how even a single positive test will inevitably disrupt the schedule despite what anyone’s intentions or Operations Manual said. The reconfiguring and erasing of off days will continue. Each team’s slate will become less balanced compared to any other’s the longer this goes on.

The cumulative effect is to underscore how unimportant the regular season is as anything other than a means to a lucrative postseason. And how important a bubble will be when we get there.

Maybe that’s fine. And we should all just embrace baseball this summer as entertainment largely decoupled from any sort of accurate gauntlet. Think of it as a several-month-long movie, with a lot of little breaks, about whether the Orioles can sustain whatever they’re doing right now long enough to make it interesting. But let’s not pretend there’s any sanctity to competitive integrity. The schedule won’t allow for that.

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