MLB’s handling of COVID-19 safety, testing merits players’ skepticism

Jamie Campbell, Jon Morosi, Jeff Blair and Joe Siddall discuss whether the Toronto Blue Jays are at a disadvantage starting camp so late, and the impact that could be felt if Mike Trout decides to opt out of playing this season.

Never mind public health officials or fans. You and I don’t count. Major League Baseball seems to have about three weeks to show Mike Trout it knows what it’s doing with testing and handling of novel coronavirus cases. And it stands to reason, based on Saturday’s news that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price is writing off $11.9 million in salary to skip the 2020 season, that there are other players who quietly or otherwise harbour the same sentiments as Trout.

“Honestly,” said the soon-to-be first-time father, “I still don’t feel that comfortable.”

Price won’t play. Joe Ross, Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Leake said the same thing a week earlier. Felix Hernandez? Sunday. Freddie Freeman and Miguel Sano are cornerstone players for their franchises who have tested positive for COVID-19. Same with Salvador Perez. Those are the ones we know of and between the time this is posted online, chances are some others may have decided this 60-game marathon isn’t worth even stepping up to the starting line. They just won’t let anybody know about it. Not having test results returned in a timely fashion, or having COVID testers fail to show up – which has already happened to teams this weekend – is not a promising start.

It is easy to look at this and say that, finally, it’s all about – and all on – the players. You might think that from this point on, Rob Manfred and Tony Clark can’t be blamed or lauded. The health and safety protocols have been bargained and signed off on, and unless owners rush getting fans back into the ballparks – and since 29 of them are American, there’s no indication common sense will prevail – it’s the players who will ultimately decide whether this works. It is they who need to avoid the allure of the nightclub and patio and whatever else boys being boys means these days to make this thing work. Yet, we’re only sort of there. As friend and former general manager Jim Duquette has pointed out, the rubber will meet the road when — and if — a player who wasn’t positive upon entering camp suddenly tests positive. Then let’s see how all this works. Let’s see how supportive management is at a time when relations between ownership and players is toxic. Let’s see how soon it takes a player to recover. What tracing looks like. What a return to lockdown feels like. Considering the surprisingly low level of positive tests reported by MLB on Friday – 1.2 per cent – an outbreak in-camp will be even more telling. Keep in mind: each team will have a 60-player pool, way more than soccer or hockey or baseball teams. More participants would suggest a greater chance of positives.

Even a cursory glance at initial dispatches from various major league camps reveals more than an underlying skepticism on the part of players that this thing will get done, which is the way it should be, given what is happening in wider society south of the border, with cases spiking in a number of states that produce the majority of the games and the virus putting to rest the notion that it only strikes the aged. As states roll back or slow down re-openings, who wouldn’t forgive the odd player watching cable news from wondering about whether re-starting is worth it? Instead of finding reasons to play, many major leaguers are looking for a way out.

Germany’s Bundesliga and all the other top-tier soccer leagues that have re-started in Europe all had the same concerns initially. Yet the Bundesliga allowed players to go to and from their homes and finished its season without recording a single positive test after the re-start. More importantly, once players became fully acclimated to the health protocols and confident in the testing to which they were subjected, they flew into tackles and grabbed each other’s shirts on corner kicks. They squared up to each other. Two weeks in they were – horrors – spitting, and grabbing teammates around the neck and rubbing their heads after goals. The number of allowable support staff on-site increased, and players were given the option of not wearing masks as they sat in the stands waiting to be called upon as substitutes. First-bumps resumed, albeit on the sly and at times almost sheepishly. And there were precious few transgressions of health protocols away from the pitch, beyond the odd stolen haircut which, as anybody who knows the lifestyle of pro soccer players could tell you, might be the biggest surprise of all.

The same general patterns hold true now in Italy, Spain and England, all countries that were ravaged by the virus more than Germany.

Now, the usual caveat: the amount and length of domestic travel that soccer teams in Europe go through is way less than what MLB teams will be asked to do, and the U.S. is a by and large a mess when it comes to testing and discipline and adhering to common-sense practices. NHL and NBA players are turning in positive tests – no surprise, since they are not yet fully locked down in their quarantine bubbles – but in what is perhaps the most disturbing bit of news, a Columbus Crew player and six FC Dallas players tested positive for COVID-19 while in the “MLS is Back Tournament” bubble in Orlando after turning in a negative test before their teams left for Florida, according to ESPN.

There is only so much shoulder shrugging pro athletes will handle during an otherwise joyless exercise aimed largely at fulfilling broadcast and sponsorship commitments. And so this is where we are as the Toronto Blue Jays begin summer camp at the Rogers Centre. MLB’s regular-season schedule is supposed to be released Monday and the wise words of former manager Felipe Alou seem more appropriate than ever before: “Once spring training starts, the only things that happen to a team until Opening Day are bad things.” And that was the case even when everybody trusted each other.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Count the Cincinnati Reds as a team that will be celebrating the advent of the designated hitter in the National League. Heading into spring training 1.0, the big question was where they’d play all their outfielders after signing Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama and adding them to a mix that included Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Phillip Ervin and Aristedes Aquino. The DH will make manager David Bell’s lineup easier to manage and is one reason the Reds will be a trendy pick when play resumes …

• F1 racing resumed this weekend in Austria with two Canadian-born drivers on the same starting grid for the first time since the early ’70s: Montrealers Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi, both of whom are sons of businessmen who made significant financial commitments by buying into F1 teams. Latifi finished 11th for Williams – by far the weakest team in the sport — in his debut race, while Stroll, whose Racing Point team is much-fancied after substantial technological improvements to the car, was gone after 22 laps in a race that saw nine of 20 cars retire. Latifi’s car was the last to cross the line; had he come in 10th he would have pocketed a point in his first race, but as he noted later, “it was nice that the safety car came out at the end so I could experience running close to the other cars.” Latifi was seven seconds behind 10th-place finisher Sebastian Vettel, who had a nightmarish drive for Ferrari …

• The final numbers out of the Bundesliga, not surprisingly, show home-field advantage was less of a factor behind closed doors as viositing teams won 45 per cent to the league norm, which hovers around 33 per cent. Pep Guardiola can’t wait for the Premier League numbers to be finalized, is my guess: Manchester City’s 0-1 loss to Southampton on Sunday marked the first time in Guardiola’s storied managerial career in which he’s lost three consecutive road matches …

The beautiful game has a new addition. Jeff Blair and Dan Riccio host A Kick In The Grass, a soccer podcast from Sportsnet.

• Edmonton native Alphonso Davies had a breakout season for Bayern Munich, to the point where the club’s head of internationalization and strategy, Jorg Wacker, says he is in the top five in Bayern jersey sales …

• Calgary’s Mike Soroka says that seeing his teammate, all-star Freddie Freeman, be absent from workouts after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, was a sobering message for many Braves players because Freeman is a homebody who was self-isolating and because it was a reminder of what was at stake competitively if a player is lost for two weeks in a 60-game season …

THE ENDGAME

I’ll admit I was a little surprised to see the NBA and NBA Players Association reveal publicly the social messages players will be allowed to display on their tops during games this summer, in part because it seemed an unnecessary co-opting of the spontaneity and organic nature I associate with protest. It seemed, I don’t know, a little too corporate. Like something the NFL would do, although in the NFL’s case there would likely be a different sponsorship attached to each message. But then I saw Formula 1’s attempt this weekend and … oof. It’s great that F1 adopted a #endracism message for its return, and a “We Race As One” tagline for TV. But hearing Lewis Hamilton, the defending and six-time world champion and only Black driver, talk about the politicking behind the scenes that suggested a total mangling of the message, then watching six drivers stand behind Hamilton and the other six drivers who decided to take a knee before Sunday’s race in Austria — all of them wearing #endracism T-shirts — but only Hamilton wearing one with “Black Lives Matter” on the front of it? I mean, do we still need to remind people that the reason Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner was to protest police brutality against African-Americans? That “end racism,” while a laudable goal, is a different battle? There was an odd discordance to the F1 picture, compared, for example, to the Premier League, which opened its season with “Black Lives Matter” on the back of players jerseys, still has a shoulder patch on each jersey with the message, and whose players, coaches and on-field officials all drop to a knee after the referee blows his whistle to start the match, with several players often holding up a clenched fist. Powerful stuff that cannot be co-opted or missed or misunderstood. Hamilton said later he understood why some drivers didn’t take a knee and hinted he might consider doing so before every race. But his disappointment was obvious. This was something the drivers had decided as a group and left to their own devices? They pooched it. So, kudos to the NBA for wanting to get their messaging right …

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. He and Dan Riccio also co-host A Kick In The Grass, Canada’s only national soccer show, heard Monday nights on the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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