Five days into the 2020 season, Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday that an already compressed season would have to be reshaped in deference to a COVID-19 outbreak on one of its teams.
With 15 Marlins players — nearly half of the 33-player travel roster for the season-opening series — now reportedly having tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the league announced that Miami would not play until at least next Monday. Though none of their players have to this point tested positive, the Phillies — who hosted the Marlins over the weekend — won’t play until at least Friday.
Already, MLB is scrambling to react. The Yankees, Orioles, and Nationals all joined the Marlins and Phillies in the sudden need to reconfigure their seasons.
The alteration makes sense from a public health standpoint, keeping the Marlins and Phillies isolated until there’s certainty that they’re not putting their teammates or others at risk of an infection. (The decision to keep the Phillies off the field, however, further highlights just how terribly ill-advised it was to have the Phillies and Marlins play on Sunday, after three Miami players had tested positive.) It also makes practical sense, as having the Yankees and Orioles — the scheduled opponents on Wednesday and Thursday of the Phillies and Marlins, respectively — play each other minimizes the number of games lost.
Even so, the shakeup in the season’s first week underscores the notion that a season is an exercise in funambulism on a wobbly rope. Yet in announcing all of these changes via press release, the league suggested that the evidence from the first week of the season had been … encouraging?
“The difficult circumstances of one Club reinforce the vital need to be diligent with the protocols in all ways, both on and off the field,” the statement concluded. “We are confident that Clubs and players will act appropriately, for themselves and for others, and the data provides reason to believe that the protocols can work effectively.”
That’s quite a conclusion, supported not by the complete data set but instead by a carefully curated subset of it.
MLB’s release said that since Friday, there hadn’t been a single positive test among field personnel on 29 of the 30 teams. The press release also offered a now-familiar refrain that since players passed through the intake phase of the return to training camps, only 0.3 percent of tests prior to the start of the season tested positive.
In a vacuum, both of those numbers could be promising. In particular, yes, there is some hope in the fact that all but one team made it five days without one player or staff member testing positive.
But you can’t look at data and throw out inconvenient facts to fit a desired narrative. Highlighting zero positives on 29 rosters in a span of five days as a sign of promise while ignoring that an infectious wildfire decimated another roster to the point of being unable to play comes across as disingenuous.
So, too, does the way that MLB has focused in its weekly press releases on the percentage of tests that have yielded positives. More relevant is the raw number of Tier 1 field personnel that have tested positive, since MLB’s high total volume of tests reflects the fact that the same people are (quite necessarily) being tested repeatedly.
Before Opening Day, 84 players — nearly three full expanded rosters — and 15 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 since rejoining their clubs in July. The Marlins outbreak will greatly increase those numbers.
The league, meanwhile, is operating without a bubble, hoping, instead, that players and staff members would voluntarily and diligently create 30 separate bubbles while adhering to protocols. .
Under those circumstances, nearly everyone — infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists, as well as those in both MLB and the MLBPA who jointly developed the protocols — viewed an outbreak was a when-not-if proposition. And now, days into the season, it’s arrived.
So what does that mean?
A case can be made that the outbreak offers evidence of the value of MLB’s testing program, since it resulted in the decision to keep the Marlins from traveling to additional cities, playing additional teams, and further broadening the circle of exposures. If, in several days (after the incubation period), no Phillies players have tested positive, then it offers evidence that even an outbreak on one team can be prevented from becoming more widely spread.
“This virus is powerful and will blow past a lot of the efforts we make to contain it,” said Roger Shapiro, an associated professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Despite all of these measures, some ballplayers became infected. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is going to spread throughout Major League Baseball. …
“[And] there are so many clusters among other people who are having to go to work and are not protected or who are choosing to do unsafe activities. My fear is not that Major League Baseball will be driving community transmission.”
The fact that the Marlins have been isolated and that their members are being treated before returning to the field likewise represents a step to answering one of the uncertainties that loomed over a restart, chiefly: What would happen if players tested positive on the road? Importantly, there was a plan at work for addressing infected players in visiting cities. And, as many have noted, perhaps this outbreak serves as a wakeup call — hopefully without long-term harm to any members of the Marlins — to follow safety protocols more rigorously. (Goodbye, fist bumps.)
All the same, while there are now answers on those fronts, questions loom. If the Marlins don’t represent, in the words of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, a “nightmare scenario,” then what does? If an outbreak on one team in the season’s first week — with both concerns about the health and well-being of members of the Marlins and anyone with whom they came in contact, and the likely concession that not all teams will be able to play 60 games — isn’t enough to deter MLB from moving forward, what is?
Against those questions comes one certainty: Even the modified season couldn’t steer through the pandemic unscathed. One week into the season, MLB has had to give up on anything along the lines of its best-case scenario. Now, it is pushing ahead, hoping that it will be able to clear the considerably lower bar of “compromised but good enough.”