MLB’s inherent steadfastness blinding the sport to COVID’s cold realities

Two Philadelphia staff members tested positive for COVID-19 forcing the Blue Jays' weekend series against the Phillies to be postponed. Faizal Khamisa, Ben Nicholson-Smith & Arden Zwelling explain the impact this will have across the MLB.

TORONTO – There is an unbreakable steadfastness and tunnel-visioned determination needed to survive the tortuous grind of an 162-game season, and both are shining through in Major League Baseball’s response to this week’s COVID-19 outbreaks.

Under normal circumstances, those are qualities to be admired and respected. Resilience in the face of adversity, be it injuries or struggle, is often the difference between success and failure. Sometimes, you just have to power through problems, or to "sack up," as Tanner Roark put it this week, when talking about his Toronto Blue Jays having to call Buffalo’s Sahlen Field home.

Here’s general manager Ross Atkins with a bit more of a polished take.

"I wish you guys could see the amount of isolation we’re in, how we’re going about our daily lives," the Blue Jays general manager said Friday during a Zoom call with reporters. "The only times that our players are really ever together are when we’re in a bus, on a plane or at the field. And then we go back to our hotel rooms and we’re all in isolation. I think that the industry has a great deal of respect for this virus and the fact that it has no boundaries. I can’t say that it could be proven that it went from one team to another. I don’t think anyone knows that. But I do know that everyone is very respectful of how serious this virus is, and we can’t control what that means for other teams in other environments.

"What we can do is to the best of our ability stay safe and keep communities safe, not just our baseball team, but the communities in and around us. We are in a pandemic. We did not expect this to be smooth and without hiccups, without bumps. We all expected that there would probably be challenges, some anticipated and some not anticipated. And I can’t say enough about our staff and players and how respectful they’ve been, how thoughtful they’ve been, how disciplined they’ve been, the amount of sacrifice that they’ve made for the love of the game and for one another. It has been inspiring."

All of that is true, yet the coronavirus doesn’t care.

A fundamental issue facing a sport conditioned to fight through any and all obstacles, that the bus doesn’t stop moving for anyone, is that it’s totally the wrong mentally to have amidst a pandemic.

Consider that last Sunday, when the Miami Marlins should really have been self-isolating in their hotel rooms, they decided to persist through a handful of infections and take the field against the Philadelphia Phillies. So very baseball.

The consequences of that call is that they’re up to 18 positives among their players, or 60 per cent of their 30-man roster. The Phillies on Thursday reported two positive cases and while it’s unclear if they’re related to the Marlins exposure, their weekend series with the Blue Jays was postponed as a result.

Then, Friday morning, a pair of positive tests among the St. Louis Cardinals led to the postponement of their series opener Friday at the Milwaukee Brewers to Sunday, when the teams will play a double-header. They’ll still play as scheduled Saturday, with the delay Friday "consistent with protocols to allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted," MLB said in a release.

This, however, is where things get sticky, and the sport’s blind determination becomes really reckless in the face of the widely accepted science on COVID-19.

The onset of symptoms can take up to five days and a patient can be infectious for up to nine days afterwards for a total of 14 days, which is why quarantines are set at 14 days. In theory, an untested person could be spreading virus without knowing for up to two weeks, but baseball has mitigated that with every other day testing.

Those results provide bookends for a player’s exposure period, which is very helpful in contact-tracing – i.e., Player X was negative Tuesday but positive Thursday so his infection likely occurred Wednesday. At that point, work can begin on identifying whether transmission occurred on the field, in the clubhouse, socially, at home or in the community.

Still, within the gap from negative to positive, there are countless contact points with teammates, even with the current protocols in place, and the virus’s incubation period can last up to 14 days. So a player who tests negative one day could still become positive a few days later, and in the meantime, he’s spread the virus to several others.

All that is why 14-day quarantines are the gold standard for breaking transmission chains and avoiding silent spread. But two-week breaks don’t really line up with a 60-game season played across 9½ weeks, so you end up with a situation like the Marlins, and allowing the Cardinals to play as soon as Saturday is a recipe for replicating that outbreak.

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

Major League Baseball has thrown around the phrase "abundance of caution" quite a bit lately, but a real abundance of caution is in stopping people who have been exposed to the virus from being exposed to other people.

In the Cardinals’ case, that would mean keeping them away from the Brewers all weekend, and contact-tracing them up to five days backwards, which takes them through series versus the Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins, who on Thursday played Cleveland.

All of them are, to some degree, at risk right now, and then there’s the risk of them vectoring disease into the wider community, too.

This isn’t fear-mongering or nay-saying – it’s math and probabilities, which has been the problem with MLB’s return-to-play plan from the outset. The United States reopened too quickly, never quelled COVID-19’s first wave and, unable to logistically bubble up the way the NHL and NBA have, MLB decided to go ahead with a season cut off but not totally isolated from a general population spreading the virus at alarming levels.

Whenever that hard truth is raised, baseball people fall back on the usual mantras used to survive the 162-game grind, about focusing on themselves, controlling the controllables, not worrying about matters outside their purview, blah, blah, blah.

Even with stricter protocols coming – "we’ve already instituted them in how we’re interacting with families, how we’re interacting with people away from the field," Atkins said of the Blue Jays – it’s wishful thinking to insist that the MLB season can get to the finish line without some real bubbling from the wider community.

"When someone leaves the ballpark and we obviously consult with Major League Baseball and talk to them about extenuating circumstances, like myself of driving to Buffalo to see the facility, I would by no means have jumped on a commercial flight and come back to this team," Atkins said in describing the extra cautions he and the Blue Jays are taking. "The amount of testing and intake process for myself as I come back to join the team, the same for our players with Ken Giles as he left the team (to see a specialist about an injury) and came back to join us. We’re going to isolate him from the team before he rejoins the group. Our interactions with families, how we’re testing families. Major League Baseball is very supportive, but I think everyone’s having to do their part to deal with circumstances that are changing every day."

Diligence is great but adherence to MLB’s current plan, under current circumstances, isn’t enough to avoid the coronavirus. Persistence and resolve may be commendable hallmarks of the sport, but what a shame it will be if they leave the game’s decision-makers too blind to grasp the realities in front of them.

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