MLB’s testing troubles put Blue Jays’ plans and sport’s return at risk

Hazel Mae is joined by MLB insiders Shi Davidi & Ben Nicholson-Smith as they analyze the Blue Jays 2020 schedule. Plus, they shed light on the challenges still facing the Blue Jays and MLB to get season underway.

TORONTO – Remember when Major League Baseball refused to consider the players’ suggestion that the regular season stretch into October, ostensibly due to fears that an expected second wave of COVID-19 would shut the game down?

Funny to think of that now, with the sport barrelling head-first into the 2020 campaign, despite the United States’ costly failure to corral the coronavirus’ first wave, and the country’s ongoing negligence and half-hearted measures to curb the rampant spread.

Insurmountable in negotiations becomes merely inconvenient in reality so easily, which is how MLB can go sunshine and lollipops Monday during its schedule reveal, even as the latest slate of infections surfaced, issues with returning test results came to light and more players either expressed discomfort or opted out of 2020.

Never mind the “unforeseen delays,” as the testing snafus were described in a damage-control statement, baseball is back, here’s a screengrab calendar to download!

There are no mulligans in this attempt at a return to play, since all it takes is one or two outbreaks for the whole thing to implode, a possibility that seems more within reach every day.

Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, in a statement after his club shut down the day’s workouts because test results from Friday were still pending, showed real leadership in saying, “without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with summer camp.”

“Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab,” he continued. “Otherwise, summer camp and the 2020 season are at risk.”

There’s no hyperbole there, since a prime tenet of baseball’s protocol is every-other-day screenings to ensure that any infections are caught quickly and isolated before they become outbreaks. An inability to get through the first weekend, regardless of the Independence Day holiday down south, without issue is worryingly inauspicious.

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Perhaps no team has much riding on the testing process getting straightened out than the Toronto Blue Jays, who still must convince public health officials and the federal government that they should be allowed to host their regular-season games at Rogers Centre.

The theory they’re selling to gain approval is that not only will both they and the visiting club in town essentially be doing their quarantine at the dome and attached hotel, but that everyone arriving will have been recently tested to ensure they are COVID-free.

If that foundation falls apart, there’s no chance the government will risk importing cases just so the Blue Jays can play at home. While that offers an important symbol of normalcy and perhaps a dose of civic pride, the country sacrificed too much to reel in the spread to gamble on a process that should have been made foolproof during April, May and June.

That it wasn’t, and that Toronto-based Blue Jays staff couldn’t enter the dome Monday because their tests from Friday were also pending, and that the club didn’t disclose another positive player test, causing a group of players and staffers that had direct contact with him to stay back in Dunedin, Fla., rather than charter up Sunday night, doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Trying to sweep the latter under the rug might fly in the United States, where the White House keeps acting like the pandemic isn’t running wild across the land. But here, if the Blue Jays want to maintain the trust of a government that has already afforded them one exemption so they can host training camp in Toronto, and keep the faith of the community hosting them, more transparency is the way to go.

Privacy laws grant players the right to keep a COVID-19 diagnosis out of the public eye, but the team can divulge numbers openly and honestly, the way the Philadelphia Phillies did when they had an outbreak at their Clearwater facility last month.

If the Blue Jays want to demonstrate how “the health and safety of the general public” are “at the forefront” as it seeks another exemption for games in Toronto, accountability is better than having word leak out in dribs and drabs, with no public comment from the club.

To a degree, the sensitivities here are understandable.

A tweet by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, in which he said several Blue Jays said they had only been tested once before crossing the border — a violation of the protocol agreed to with the government that mandates two negative PCR tests for entry — forced the medical staff to make sure no one had slipped through the cracks.

The Blue Jays later said that everyone on the team had in fact produced two negative tests, and some with the team wondered if some players may have meant a single saliva test, as the travel party also received nasal swab exams to satisfy local health officials.

Of course, what made the whole thing plausible is that there are widespread issues with testing across the game. Major League Baseball struck a deal with the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, which converted a portion of its anti-doping lab to conduct the COVID-19 screening.

The 2020 Operations Manual says the lab “has committed to fulfilling the Testing Components” of the protocol but adds that “other testing laboratories and facilities identified and approved by the Joint Committee may be used to test a limited number of samples when additional capacity or expedited processing is necessary.”

According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, MLB and the union were working on precisely that.

In fairness, to have expected such a massive and unprecedented testing operation to be pulled off without a hitch is probably unrealistic. A few hiccups were bound to happen, they did happen, and the impact was significant.

This time Major League Baseball’s restart will survive. Next time, it may not be as lucky.

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