As MLB stumbles out of the gate, player pushback gets louder

By Tyler Kepner

Major League Baseball triumphantly declared Monday that it would announce a 60-game schedule on its cable network that evening. Around the same time, the two teams from last year’s World Series, the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros, were canceling their Monday workouts for safety reasons — and blaming MLB.

The reason for the holdup was a delay in receiving the results of the coronavirus tests both teams took Friday. The Oakland Athletics’ tests, too, had not even been delivered to the MLB laboratory in Utah as of Sunday night. The St. Louis Cardinals, too, canceled their workout Monday because of the testing delay.

The first few days of “2020 Summer Camp presented by Camping World” have been a disaster, the official sponsor all but inviting you to head for the wilderness, pitch a tent, curl up in a sleeping bag and sleep off the storm.

“The season, it’s not on my radar, really,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters in Milwaukee. “This is on my radar: It’s keeping everybody healthy and safe and doing the best we can at that job.”

Like other industries in the United States, MLB is trying to find its way in the grim new reality of pandemic life. The coaches and some players wear masks, news media access is severely limited and everyone practices social distancing as much as possible. There is no recent blueprint to follow, no foolproof protocol for administering nearly 4,000 tests last week. Mistakes were inevitable.

But failing to properly plan around holiday weekend delivery issues is hard to excuse, and it has given the players yet another reason to distrust Commissioner Rob Manfred. We saw this dynamic highlighted across three exasperating months of failed negotiations on restarting the season. Now, even team executives are livid with the league.

“We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement Monday. “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. Otherwise, summer camp and the 2020 season are at risk.”

In a statement Monday afternoon, MLB defended its testing process by saying that more than 95 percent of its planned tests had been conducted and analyzed.

“We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence,” it said.

The players will be tested, as planned, every other day through the end of the World Series, and bad news has already been pouring in. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon, Kansas City’s Salvador Pérez, San Diego’s Tommy Pham, Texas’ Joey Gallo and the New York Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu are among the many players who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Freeman’s wife, Chelsea, wrote on Instagram Sunday that her husband had experienced body aches, headaches, high fever and chills for several days, despite the family’s strict adherence to social distancing. Freeman’s experience was sobering for his teammate, outfielder Nick Markakis, who announced Monday that he would opt out of playing this season.

“I talked to Freddie Freeman the other day, and just hearing the way he sounded over the phone kind of opened my eyes,” Markakis, 36, told reporters Monday. “Freddie didn’t sound good. I hope he’s doing good, I hope he’s healthy, I know these guys need him more than anybody. Just to hear him, the way he sounded, it was tough.”

Markakis added that he has three children and has already missed much of their youth. Given his teammate’s ordeal, and the prospect of playing in empty stadiums, Markakis said goodbye.

“We play for the fans, and to take them out of the equation, it’s tough, and I think that was kind of the blow for me,” Markakis said. “I knew coming into it, but until you actually get into the situation and you go there and experience it, it changes things. I love the game. I hate to see it the way it’s going right now, but that’s the way things have to be.”

In opting out, Markakis joined a list of players that includes two former Cy Young Award winners — David Price of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Félix Hernández of the Braves — plus veteran mainstays like Ian Desmond of the Colorado Rockies, Mike Leake of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. All of them, like Markakis, have earned more than $90 million in their careers. The risk, for a two-month season, was simply not worth it.

Of course, the virus threatens everyone, regardless of salary. Nationals pitcher Joe Ross, who has earned less than $4 million in his career, also opted out. His teammate, cerebral reliever Sean Doolittle, framed the issue eloquently in a Zoom conversation with Washington reporters Sunday.

“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,” Doolittle said, as reported by The Washington Post. “We’re way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut this thing down. And, like, look where the other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back.

“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.”

The Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant said he would play, but was dismayed by the lag time in testing results.

“I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe and I would be comfortable — honestly, I don’t really feel that way,” Bryant told Chicago reporters Monday, adding later, “If we can’t nail the easy part, which is right now and just our players, we’ve got a big hill to climb.”

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