When sports and society shut down across the United States in mid-March, Major League Baseball spent more than three months assembling a mountain of protocols and a testing program in an effort to conduct a season safely amidst a raging pandemic. It took all of four regular-season days to demonstrate that those protocols hadn’t eliminated the risk of an outbreak.
The Marlins and Phillies played a game in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, hours after Miami found out that three of its players — including the scheduled starting pitcher, Jose Urena — had tested positive for COVID-19. Eight more players tested positive on Monday.
MLB canceled the scheduled games between the Marlins and Orioles on Monday and Tuesday, and also canceled a Phillies-Yankees game in Philadelphia on Monday night. Yet those three cancellations represent only the tip of the iceberg of vulnerability exposed by the outbreak.
“What this illustrates is that no matter how robust your protocols are, there’s always going to be a non-zero risk. You cannot, in the middle of a pandemic, completely isolate yourself and your organization from the impact of that,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins. “The question is always how much are you willing to do to reduce the risk, and how much risk is tolerable to the individuals involved?”
Evidently, the Marlins outbreak did not alter the game’s view of what constitutes acceptable risk.
MLB owners had a regularly scheduled phone call on Monday. The MLB Players Association communicated with player representatives. According to industry sources, suspending or canceling the season wasn’t explored in any meaningful fashion during those conversations. Nor has the possibility of increasing testing from its current schedule of every other day been discussed.
Instead, for now, the Marlins situation is viewed as isolated. Most industry discussion focused on the logistics of playing Marlins games moving forward and possible adjustments to protocols.
“I don’t put this in the nightmare category. … Most of the owners realize that we built protocols anticipating that we would have positive tests at some point during the season. The protocols were built in order to allow us to continue to play through those positives,” commissioner Rob Manfred said on MLB Network. “I remain optimistic that the protocols are strong enough that it will allow us to continue to play even through an outbreak like this and complete our season.”
Red Sox executives and medical personnel, meanwhile, met with players via Zoom to discuss their upcoming road trip to New York (for games against the Mets and Yankees) and Tampa Bay, and the risks associated with activities in both regions — particularly Florida. Manager Ron Roenicke said the team hopes players will stay in their hotel while playing in Tampa Bay, and that any family visitors would be tested before interacting with members of the team.
While Roenicke said that the wisdom of conducting a season wasn’t questioned, he expressed his hope that the Marlins outbreak might push players to be more vigilant about observing safety protocols, such as avoiding fist bumps and other celebratory contact on the field, and engaging in safe behaviors off of it.
“I don’t want to make them fearful about going on the road, or fearful about playing and continuing on with this because I think we are doing a lot of good things. . . . I’m hopeful [the Marlins outbreak] scares them a little bit into, ‘Hey, I know we’ve been good at this, but we can be better,’ " said Roenicke. “We have to keep reminding guys to try to stay with the things that our medical department [has] said are safe. Hopefully that continues, and we’re able to go on the road and do the right things.”
Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi suggested that the outbreak offered a matter-of-fact reminder of the need to follow protocols.
“You’ve got to wear your mask and keep your distance as safe as possible,” said Benintendi. “That’s the second-most important thing we could do right now opposed to winning baseball games.”
Others, however, viewed the development as a jarring indictment of the game. Former Red Sox pitcher David Price, who opted not to pitch for the Dodgers over health and safety concerns, expressed his skepticism about the league’s operations in a pandemic.
Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first. 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.— David Price (@DAVIDprice24) July 27, 2020
“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first. Remember when [MLB commissioner Rob 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,” Price wrote on Twitter.
To this point, Roenicke said, there has been no suggestion that the games against the Rays might be moved out of Florida. Adalja, however, suggested that as MLB tries to conduct a season with teams spread in 28 different cities, it might want to consider relocating games from Florida and other hot spots — much as it would during a hurricane or other disaster.
“You wouldn’t play sports in a war zone. That’s basically what’s going on here. Certain states are war zones between humans and this virus,” said Adalja. “That’s probably not the best place you want to do recreational activities.”
Because baseball eschewed the “bubble” approach and is permitting its players to interact with their communities, the league and its players accepted greater risk than the NBA of the potential for an outbreak, particularly in regions like Florida with high infection rates. MLB further accepted the risks associated with teams traveling between cities.
Even so, while Massachusetts has introduced a 14-day quarantine requirement covering a broad set of out-of-state travelers, Gov. Charlie Baker suggested that due to MLB’s regular testing program and the league’s health and safety protocols, he remained comfortable with teams coming from out of state to play at Fenway.
“[Continual testing] sets a very high bar with respect to when you play and when you don’t,” said Baker. “Our view is their approach to this has to be careful and cautious, and if that translates into some games not getting played or some games being postponed, or some trips not being taken because of issues associated with the results of their testing, that’s going to be the way it’s going to be.”
One series into the season, the reality of that disruption became painfully clear. It remains to be seen whether the Marlins outbreak is indeed isolated or a harbinger, but it is apparent that — even with regular testing and a litany of protocols — the season will remain at the mercy of the virus.