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Theoretically, 2020 was the year of COVID-19 in Major League Baseball.
The coronavirus delayed the season three months, shortened it to 60 games, forced the postponement of more than 40 games and infected more than 100 players.
With vaccines available, 2021 was lined up to be the year after COVID, with few interruptions, healthy players and a level playing field. The goal was largely accomplished: Just nine games were postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Yet a confluence of factors, most notably vaccine hesitancy and the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, could not entirely blunt the pandemic.
Tuesday, MLB’s money season – figuratively and, for all 30 clubs and TV partners, literally – begins, with a revised set of COVID-19 protocols for the 10 teams chasing a World Series title. Though the sellout crowds will provide a nice contrast from 2020’s silent October, signs both subtle and significant will keep the ongoing public health crisis in mind.
The Boston Red Sox won’t need any reminders.
Sunday evening, the exhausted club could finally exhale: After a slipshod and ragged final month of the season, they secured a playoff berth on the season’s final day, a 7-5 victory sending them home for Tuesday’s AL wild card game against the New York Yankees.
They overcame a four-run deficit to win and thus, themes of resilience and focus were evoked. Boston’s resolve, though, had as much to do with overcoming how its clubhouse became something of a societal microcosm as anything on the diamond.
A rolling COVID-19 outbreak spanning August and almost all of September ravaged the Red Sox’s roster; for a 27-day stretch from Aug. 26 to Sept. 21, at least one player was in quarantine, according to the Boston Globe. While the Red Sox were one of just six teams that failed to reach MLB’s 85% vaccination rate to loosen coronavirus protocols, the outbreak started with a breakthrough infection involving a player – center fielder and second baseman Kike’ Hernandez – who was vaccinated.
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“As an organization, we did a lot of things to keep it under control,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before the team’s regular season finale. “Obviously, like everywhere, or with a lot of teams and other institutions, we had our hiccup.
“It took us a while. But everybody did an amazing job.”
That hiccup, for better and worse, ended up defining their season.
Forgive the Red Sox if they never feel quite the same about the fair city of Cleveland.
That’s where Hernandez tested positive, where infielder Christian Arroyo and a strength coach tested positive, and undoubtedly where several more infections were seeded, given that seven additional players tested positive four days after they left town.
Not everyone got to leave. Hernandez and Arroyo were stuck in their hotel rooms for 10 days, evoking memories of the turbulent start of the 2020 MLB season, when a Miami Marlins outbreak set an ominous tone for the 60-game schedule and the infected eventually were shipped back to Florida on sleeper busses.
The Red Sox had it a little better. But food dropped at the hotel-room door, isolation not just from others but also baseball-related activities – not how you want to begin September.
“It stunk, and to that point, I don’t even know if we had any players test positive last season,” said Arroyo, part of a 2020 Red Sox club that was perfect in COVID tests once the season began.
The low point came Aug. 31, with Boston in the midst of a crucial four-game series at Tampa Bay. All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts was yanked from the second game of the series in the middle of the game after testing positive, the biggest loss in a domino of decimation that bordered on the absurd.
Wanna play second base for the Red Sox? It might have been your chance after Hernandez tested positive, followed by Arroyo, Yairo Munoz and Jonathan Arauz, forcing GM Chaim Bloom to go out of the organization and sign recently released veteran Jose Iglesias.
Suddenly, player care and procurement was a near full-time job.
“It was more a test of our resilience as a team and really utilizing everyone, from the No. 1 to the No. 26 spot,” said Arroyo, who declined to divulge his vaccination status. “I can’t applaud enough what our front office did, even for my experience, when I was stuck in Cleveland, checking in on me, and making sure everything was good, and what they were able to do with player personnel, to keep one foot in front of the other.”
They lost the first two of four games at Tampa Bay; veteran Brad Peacock, acquired from Cleveland for cash on Aug. 30, started and lost the second game. A once surefire hold on a playoff berth was down to one game.
Then, finally, a glimmer. A 28-year-old named Jack Lopez was tabbed for his major league debut, forming a double-play combination with Arauz, and, somehow, the emaciated Red Sox salvaged the last two games against the AL’s best team.
It was not a here-we-go moment; Boston would lose six of its next 10. But the virus’ impact on the club’s competitive fortunes was at least partially mitigated.
“Tampa, Tampa,” Cora recalled fondly. “We had Jackie at second, Jonathan at short. They did an amazing job for six days.
“That series in Tampa, I do believe – if we do what we set out to do before the season started – we’re gonna look back and people are probably going to forget the names, but not the guys in that clubhouse. Those kids were amazing for us and put us in that spot.”
For most of 2021, the vaccinated and unvaccinated were indiscernible to the public eye. Yet the Red Sox looked different than their peers in September: Cora wearing a mask during games, certain players coming off the field from batting practice wearing face coverings, caution in greater abundance.
So, what now?
MLB and the MLB Players’ Association agreed upon several tweaks to pandemic protocols for the playoffs, including allowing up to nine extra players to be around the team, daily PCR testing (instead of every other day) of unvaccinated players and personnel and more liberal transactions during or between series due to COVID-related situations, according to a person familiar with the agreement. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
More explicitly, games will not be postponed due to positive tests, symptoms or contact tracing. Pitchers must be replaced by another pitcher, and the same applies to position players. Vaccinated players who test positive and remain asymptomatic may return to the club within five days, rather than 10, provided they test negative at the end of that five-day period.
The revisions will allow for more flexibility, particularly for the vaccinated. But Cora, who called members of his team’s medical staff “our MVPs” for their support through the outbreak, knows discipline remains paramount.
“We need to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.
One way or another, this season will end with a champion crowned. The history books will record pennant winners and award winners and wins and losses. But it will be impossible to know how that black ink might read differently had COVID-19 been more thoroughly mitigated.
Consider the National League Cy Young race. Right-handers Max Scherzer of the Dodgers and the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes are separated by razor-thin margins in several statistical categories – Burnes leading in ERA (2.43-2.46), Scherzer in WHIP (0.86-0.94) and strikeouts (236-234), with 12 more innings pitched.
Now consider that Burnes, who opted against vaccination, missed at least two starts when he landed on the COVID-19 IL from April 26 to May 12. Perhaps he wins the award, anyway. Maybe he leaves no doubt had he not been forced to sit.
Do the Yankees – who provided the nation at large an early, real-time tutorial on breakthrough infections when nine vaccinated players and staff tested positive in May – win the AL East if their season doesn’t face two significant outbreaks?
Perhaps Alex Wood has some more money in his pocket this winter. The veteran left-hander who was a lifesaver for the Giants this year had a bonus clause in his contract for the number of games in which he completed at least 3⅓ innings, and hit one benchmark that earned him a $250,000 bonus.
Yet Wood was sidelined from Aug. 27 to Sept. 17 after a symptomatic and relatively debilitating COVID case, likely costing him four starts. Hitting the 10-out mark in two of those would have earned a $500,000 bonus, with a half-million more had he done so in all four.
Now, the postseason. A year ago, neutral-site semi-bubbles for the division and league championship series were utilized, apparently to great effect. The playoffs came off without a hitch – a 58-day streak without a positive test, all the way to the final three innings, when Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was removed from the decisive Game 6 after testing positive, then departed an isolation room to celebrate with teammates.
For the next month, players will be on their own, vaccinated and otherwise. The minute-to-minute tension of 2020’s playoffs, which came two months before approval of the first vaccines, feels like a distant memory.
This year, players will probably feel freer, the majority able to roam mask-free, the specter of the virus even further in the background.
It will undoubtedly be safer. Yet the season preceding this postseason proved all hiccups cannot be prevented.
“Unfortunately,” says Arroyo, “it’s part of our world we’re living with.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: COVID-19 impacted Red Sox most, hurt players' wallets