MLB stares into the abyss: Challenges of playing through pandemic may become insurmountable

The baseball season is not newly on a ledge, suddenly teetering toward surrender to the life and health crises that exist in the neighborhoods outside its ballparks. The season was there from the get-go. It chose this ledge and hoped against firm gusts.

Eight days in, baseball is an outbreak away from capitulation.

In the wake of yet more bad news — two St. Louis Cardinals tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of a week in which 18 Miami Marlins were found to be infected — players traded gloomy text messages about a Friday phone call between baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark. (Four more members of the Cardinals’ traveling party, not all players, reportedly received positive tests Saturday morning.)

On Friday’s call, according to sources briefed on the conversation, Manfred stressed that players needed to be more vigilant both on and off the field, that the league was receiving pressure from local and state officials to control current situations and better manage future conditions, and that baseball had perhaps only days or hours to get it right. (ESPN was first to report details of the call.)

The message was relayed to the players. There surely will be a re-emphasis on the guidelines put forth a month ago, in which players would be directed to refrain from, among other things, physical contact and spitting during games, habits that die hard.

On Friday night, six teams did not play scheduled games because of virus-related reasons. Three teams were under quarantine, one of them — the Marlins — in a Philadelphia hotel since Sunday. Another team, the Texas Rangers, not among the six, had its broadcast booth infected.

Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Scott Oberg looks on from the right-field stands in the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres Friday, July 31, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Other teams, including the Minnesota Twins, who hosted the Cardinals earlier in the week, on Friday underwent mass additional testing. Twins management ordered another deep cleaning of its visiting clubhouse at Target Field, where the Cleveland Indians were housed for a second day, and isolated clubhouse attendants who’d been in close contact with the Cardinals during that series. During rapid testing, a nasal swab that is not as reliable as saliva testing, none of the attendants was positive, according to Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey. Told Thursday night they could report late in the afternoon for Friday night’s game against the Indians, Twins players were summoned several hours earlier in order to submit to testing.

“We said the other day after the first incident specific to the Marlins that … it was a wake-up call, so to speak, for everybody to see that number of players ultimately result in positives, and staff as well,” Falvey said Friday evening. “I know that’s continued to grow over the last couple of days. I would say that when you have another round of this, I was concerned the other day. Am I more concerned today? Absolutely. It would be naive of me to say otherwise.”

Indians officials, coaches and players met Friday in their Minneapolis hotel, where they considered and ultimately came to terms with playing a baseball game several hours later.

“In the end, we all felt comfortable that the right thing to do was to play tonight,” said Chris Antonetti, Indians president of baseball operations. “We consulted with Major League Baseball, with the Players Association, obviously infectious disease specialists, and that’s why we’re here playing.

“There’s always some anxiety. But, again, the protocols are in place almost with the presumption that there’s someone positive in the environment. If we knew everyone that came to the ballpark every day was virus-free, we wouldn’t need to be wearing masks and going through all of the hygiene and protocols.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - JULY 31: Nelson Cruz #23 of the Minnesota Twins slides safely into home plate against the Cleveland Indians as umpire Jordan Baker #71 looks on during the first inning of the game at Target Field on July 31, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Each new day of the season has confirmed what should have been evident — the virus is better at what it does, regardless of the detail in one’s protocols manual. U.S. officials have consistently undershot the virus and its capabilities. Unwilling or unable to build a protective bubble around 30 teams and thousands of players and personnel, baseball steered directly into that path and is limping into its second weekend.

If the season is canceled prematurely, a good portion of the blame will fall on the Marlins, who MLB officials believe did not always or adequately follow off-field health and safety guidelines. Among the leads the league was investigating, one Marlins player was said to have had dinner at a friend’s house in Atlanta in the lead-up to opening day and another was to have dined in a restaurant. The league is unlikely to make its findings public.

As a consequence of so many Marlins testing positive, the league heightened its reaction to potential outbreaks. The plan was to have larger rosters, taxi squads and as many as 30 additional players at the ready, so that infected players could be quarantined and replaced without damaging the schedule. The Phillies were isolated in spite of only one coach and one clubhouse attendant testing positive, however, for fear of a broader outbreak. When two Cardinals were found to be positive Friday morning, the league postponed Friday afternoon’s game.

Shortly after breakfast, the day changed for the Twins as well.

“It’s something that’s certainly not lost upon us,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s been a very unusual day, I’d say, for our guys. There are still guys outside right now waiting in line to come in to be tested. We’ve been at it since 1 o’clock this afternoon. These are the things that are the reality we’ve living with right now.

“We knew we were probably going to have days like this.”

There probably won’t be many more, however. There can’t be. Not if the season is to survive.

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