MLB must adapt to save season as COVID-19 cases keep rising

MLB insider Dave Cokin joins Follow The Money to react to pro sports' first COVID-19 team outbreak with the Miami Marlins, and says he hopes MLB doesn't overreact to this news.

TORONTO – The easiest thing in the world is to dump on Major League Baseball for the Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak, and to be fair, the plan leaves the sport quite open to criticism.

Send 30 teams travelling around the United States as the coronavirus spreads relentlessly, while different levels of government down south enact contradictory containment policies, as wide swaths of the population can’t even agree to wear a damn mask?

Like, really? Sound like a good idea?

Epidemiologists had long predicted that this venture was doomed to fail, and if the Marlins’ outbreak and corresponding cancellations resulting from it Monday weren’t enough to collapse the season, there was at least enough impact to get the entire campaign teetering.

“MLB is cooked,” texted Dr. Andrew Morris, medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai Health System/University Health Network and an infectious diseases professor at the University of Toronto.

“MLB got sloppy and ignored the better advice of public health experts who told them this was a bad idea,” read another message from Dr. Nathan Stall, an epidemiologist and a geriatrics and internal medicine specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Fair, which is why executing a May plan amid July realities always had a long shot feel to it, even with an impressively comprehensive protocol and every-other-day testing. The six weeks owners spent trying to extract financial givebacks from players would surely have been better spent re-examining the teams-in-their-own-city structure, and considering alternatives as conditions shifted.

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Still, getting lost in a stream of I told-you-sos at this very moment is counter-productive with the season on the brink, and far more necessary at this point is trying to rescue the situation before everything falls over. Without being trite, a weekend of baseball offered a reminder of how important it is to have escapes in our lives, particularly in difficult times, and that it’s worth fighting for small semblances of normalcy amid the wait for a vaccine or an anti-viral.

Given that COVID-19 continues to rout the Team Hoax and heads-in-the-sand set in America, the United States simply hasn’t done the necessary work to run the MLB schedule as planned. Remember, the return of baseball in Asia and soccer in Europe came only after the coronavirus was firmly contained, with the return of sports part of a wider, strategic re-opening.

The U.S. looked to be headed in that direction back in May and early June, when the current scheme was hatched and seemed ambitious yet reasonable. But then Florida did Florida, several other regions became hotspots, too, and here we are.

To that end, that’s why the bubbles in the NHL and NBA have always been the more sensible model, but remember that when MLB first floated a similar plan, players nixed it almost immediately. And, as commissioner Rob Manfred said during an interview with MLB Network on Monday evening, the logistics of pulling it off in baseball may have been too much to overcome.

“The longer you go, the more people you have,” he said, “the less likely it is that you can make the bubble work.”

Maybe, but what’s the alternative? Pushing through and hoping to avoid an outbreak that brings the season crashing down?

“I honestly think MLB needs to put aside its pride, hit the pause button, deal with this outbreak for two weeks and take that time to set up proper bubbles, ideally in settings with low community prevalence of COVID-19,” Dr. Stall said. “It would be insanity to push ahead.”

Dr. Morris is thinking along the same lines, suggesting MLB officials immediately take the following steps: First, call an urgent meeting and consider bubble approaches like the NHL or NBA; second, engage the players union to signify that it’s already a crisis; third, enhance isolation among players during the time between games, rather than only at the games themselves; and fourth, begin a public campaign to promote masks and social distancing as a way to contribute to containment efforts in the U.S.

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“It’s only going to amplify,” he added. “I know they aren’t stopping, but they will be forced to. Travel is just starting.”

Unbowed, baseball is moving forward, business as usual, with the regular slate of games played Monday save for contests featuring the Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, whose games were postponed while MLB conducts more COVID-19 testing.

In a release, MLB said it’s co-ordinating with the union, and that members of the Marlins travelling party that were in Philadelphia over the weekend are self-quarantining as they await results. The Phillies also underwent tests, and the results will offer a litmus test in how easily the virus can jump from team to team during games.

“I don’t put this in the nightmare category,” Manfred said in reference to the Marlins outbreak, adding that during his weekly call with owners, there was no talk of cancelling the season.

“Most of the owners realize that we built protocols anticipating that we’d have positive tests at some point during the season, that the protocols were built in order to allow us to continue to play through those positives,” he added during his conversation with Tom Verducci. “And I think there was support for the notion that we believe that the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe.”

The Toronto Blue Jays are scheduled to play the Phillies on Friday and were set to host the Miami Marlins on Aug. 11 in their temporary home opener in Buffalo. Veteran starter Tanner Roark went to work Monday at Nationals Park for the first of four against defending World Series champion Washington trying to keep things business as usual amid the circumstances.

“I feel pretty confident, I guess, strong. Not nervous,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it if you get it and if you’re feeling symptoms, you have to step up and tell somebody before it spreads throughout the entire clubhouse. That’s the main thing. Even if you feel the slightest thing, you have to speak up and say something to not jeopardize an entire clubhouse and shut down games.”

Manager Charlie Montoyo dispatched his coaches to remind players of the need for vigilance in light of the Marlins outbreak – they didn’t hold a team meeting to conform with COVID-19 protocols – and repeated how “the moment we left Canada, there was concern.”

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Roark, in his matter-of-fact manner, described the virus as a fact of life, saying all players could do was be careful and keep their fingers-crossed that they don’t become infected. He added that both owners and players had signed up for a season within these confines.

Asked if in hindsight baseball should have taken a different approach to travelling, he replied: “I don’t know. Where would we have that bubble at?

“If you think about the places that have domes, Arizona was a hotbed for a while before we left for summer camp, Florida is still a hotbed, Texas was turning into more and more cases,” Roark continued. “There’s just so much that has to go into materializing a great solution to play together in a bubble. It’s hard to fathom that with baseball.”

Rookie teammate Santiago Espinal’s experience over the past couple of weeks, meanwhile, reflects the dichotomy of the times. He debuted Saturday, and Sunday he stole his first career base in extra innings, scoring the go-ahead run in what finished as a 6-5, 10-inning loss to Tampa Bay.

“This first week has probably been the best week of my life,” he said. “This is my dream and it came true.”

At the same time, he made the decision during summer camp in Toronto to limit himself to the hotel and ballpark all summer.

“I said to myself, ‘If it’s going to be like this, I’m just going to stay in my room,’” he said. “I think it’s the best thing to do, just stay in your room, order in your food, talk to your family over the phone, just to be careful.”

As for trying to reconcile breaking into the majors while also putting his health at risk to make it happen, Espinal said: “I know what’s happening in the world. What I’m trying to do is to try and be careful with everything that’s going on and when I get on the field, when I get here to the locker room, the focus is to do my job and try to help the team win. As soon as the game is over I try to be careful, I stay in my room and that’s it.”

Making that approach mandatory may be the compromise solution baseball needs, with players bubbling themselves in hotels both at home on the road, minimizing interactions with the public and reducing their probabilities of becoming infected.

Right now, there’s too much leeway, too much opportunity for the one mistake that brings everything down. The current plan might have made sense in May or early June, or might work somewhere else at present, where COVID-19 is under control. That’s not the United States now.

If baseball doesn’t adapt, it will become the latest example of the failed re-openings that ail the country, rather than a welcomed distraction from the chaos caused by them.

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