A COVID-19 outbreak has engulfed the Red Sox with a little more than a month left in the baseball season. Eight players and three staff members have been sidelined at a time when deteriorating play has loosened the team’s already tenuous hold on a playoff spot.
The Sox had at least one player testing positive on five of the first six days of their current trip to Cleveland and Tampa Bay. Each morning, manager Alex Cora, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, and head athletic trainer Brad Pearson discuss the grim updates of a worsening situation.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Bloom. “We try to go to great lengths to keep these sorts of things from happening, and then to see what’s happening now, it’s really hard. This goes beyond baseball.”
Bloom said the Sox don’t know how the outbreak started. Team buses left Fenway Park for the airport shortly before midnight last Thursday for a flight to Cleveland. On Friday, leadoff hitter Kiké Hernández tested positive.
Since then, six additional players have tested positive and were placed on the COVID-19-related injured list: relief pitchers Matt Barnes and Martín Pérez (Monday) and Hirokazu Sawamura (Tuesday), shortstop Xander Bogaerts (lifted early in Tuesday’s game), and reserve Yairo Muñoz (Wednesday). And, second baseman Christian Arroyo tested positive on Sunday after entering close contact quarantine on Friday.
Strength coach Kiyoshi Momose (Sunday) and quality control coach Ramón Vázquez (Monday) have also tested positive. Bloom said the infected members were experiencing differing levels of symptoms but that none were expected to experience long-term concerns.
Those who test positive are typically quarantined for at least 10 days before they can be cleared by Major League Baseball medical officials to return. In rare instances, vaccinated individuals have been cleared to return in fewer than 10 days if deemed not infectious.
Two additional members of the organization — reliever Josh Taylor (Monday) and first base coach Tom Goodwin (Monday) — have been quarantined as close contacts of infected individuals. They will spend a minimum of seven days away from the team.
MLB has the ability to postpone games if it determines there is an unacceptable health and safety risk involved in playing, a calculation that relies heavily on contact tracing. The league has postponed nine games this year. Given the scale of the outbreak, it’s unclear why the Red Sox are continuing to play.
Bloom said there had been no discussions with MLB about postponing games during the Red Sox’ current four-game series against the first-place Rays. And so, the Red Sox have tried to adjust.
Among the games postponed this year were a July 15 contest between the Red Sox and Yankees after six New York players tested positive and, most recently, a July 28 match between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies after 12 members of the Nationals (four players, eight staffers) tested positive.
However, a number of games have still been played while teams were experiencing outbreaks. The Red Sox played games against teams that had multiple roster members test positive. Last month, the Milwaukee Brewers continued to play even as nine players tested positive over a 12-day stretch.
“Definitionally, every time we have a game — and we’ve had a game every day — we bring the group together, and that obviously is going to create more risk than if everybody were kept apart,” said Bloom. “We understand it’s what we have to do. And so we’re trying to do it as safely as possible.”
The Red Sox are increasing the frequency of testing, sometimes conducting multiple tests per day, in an effort to control spread. They’ve also re-introduced protocols from last year — such as having players report later to the park, emphasizing the need for social distancing and masking, and conducting pregame meetings outside of the clubhouse — in an effort to limit transmission.
There are questions about the team’s use, or lack thereof, of one mechanism to limit transmission: vaccinations.
MLB eases COVID-19 protocols for teams whose Tier 1 personnel (major league and Triple A players, coaches, support staff and team officials who come into regular close contact with players) reach an 85 percent vaccination threshold. While 23 teams have reached that mark, the Red Sox are among the seven that have not.
It’s not known how many of the team’s Tier 1 personnel have been vaccinated. But the outbreak underscores the incompleteness of the team’s vaccination efforts.
Close contact quarantine is only required in cases of unvaccinated Tier 1 personnel. Vaccinated players who are deemed close contacts do not need to quarantine if they test negative
Still, Hernández, who the team has said is vaccinated, was the first person to test positive. Bloom said the majority of those who have likewise been infected were vaccinated. Multiple MLB outbreaks this summer have featured primarily breakthrough infections.
“I’m a strong proponent of vaccination and so is our organization. Every person in this organization that isn’t vaccinated pains me,” said Bloom, who noted that the organization had engaged in ongoing efforts to educate and encourage vaccinations. “In terms of this specific situation, we have a lot of breakthrough infections. There’s no real way to know if it would’ve been different if we had a higher vaccination rate or not. In this case, I don’t know if that’s knowable, and it doesn’t seem that helpful to play the what-if game.”
The Red Sox had managed in 2020 and 2021 to avoid in-season COVID-19 outbreaks among players. Now, the team is dealing with the loss of nearly one-third of its roster, including its top three middle infielders (Bogaerts, Hernández, and Arroyo) and many key bullpen contributors.
The development comes at a time when the team is struggling. On July 28, the Sox were in first place in the American League East with a 63-40 record, a season-high 23 games over .500. Since then, the club’s 12-19 record had knocked it hopelessly behind the Rays for the division title. It is now clinging to a one-game advantage over the Oakland A’s for the second wild-card spot, the last playoff berth. But the team’s concerns are no longer as simple as improving performance.
“You have to deal with it. You have to keep going and then readjust. Then sometimes during the game you have to adjust again,” said Cora. “I’m hating to talk about it. I’m kind of like, we need to start playing baseball and start focusing on baseball.”