As the virus spreads through MLB, so does frustration

“I think everyone is trying to look for someone or something to blame, and there isn’t one person or one thing”

By Tyler Kepner

Major League Baseball is like a beleaguered landlord with 30 frightened tenants. Flooding in one apartment damages several others. The pipes get fixed, and then mold spreads in the room down the hall. Nobody wants to condemn the building, but everyone knows it might collapse.

So it was Monday, when the Miami Marlins worked out in Baltimore, the Philadelphia Phillies prepared for a game in the Bronx — and the St. Louis Cardinals’ outbreak of positive coronavirus cases swelled to 13, forcing the postponement of four games this week in Detroit.

The Cardinals have been quarantined since Thursday at their hotel in Milwaukee, where their three-game series with the Brewers was postponed last weekend after St. Louis’ first cases were confirmed. MLB announced Monday that seven Cardinals players and six staff members had tested positive, another body blow for the league after 20 people in the Marlins’ traveling party — 18 players and two coaches — tested positive last week.

“I think everyone is trying to look for someone or something to blame, and there isn’t one person or one thing to blame,” Derek Jeter, the Marlins’ chief executive, said Monday. “This is a health crisis that we’re all dealing with — a health crisis that not only our country is dealing with, but our world is dealing with.”

Baseball wants to insulate itself from that world, but its 30 teams are traveling throughout the United States to stage a 60-game season. The league determined that a so-called bubble approach was impractical, and the areas it considered months ago — Arizona, Texas and Florida — to carry out a season in a contained environment have since become hot spots for the virus, anyway. Yet road trips have increased the risk of infection.

“We weren’t perfect,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “We were in Miami for three weeks and we didn’t have one positive. So I think we felt like we were being good at it. Obviously, we weren’t being good enough — and then we got hit in a big way.”

Jeter said the Marlins had been unfairly maligned for playing in Philadelphia on July 26 after they learned of four positive tests within their traveling party; in fact, he said, the Phillies and MLB were also aware of those test results. He also disputed that the Marlins had acted recklessly in Atlanta, where they played two exhibitions before flying to Philadelphia.

Mostly, Jeter said, the Marlins were careless, failing to adhere strictly to mask-wearing and social distancing. While there was “no salacious activity” in Atlanta, he said, some players did leave the hotel for coffee or shopping. The subsequent outbreak, however it originated, has been sobering for a young team.

“If there’s any group that understands the seriousness of what we’re dealing with, it’s our group, because we’ve seen how it’s gone through our clubhouse,” Jeter said. “We’ve talked to our guys once again about the importance of being disciplined on the road. We’ve talked to them over and over again. In terms of giving them warnings, they’ve seen it. It comes down to discipline. I don’t think there’s any secret formula for a team to be successful through this. You have to be extremely disciplined.”

The Marlins’ infected players took a bus home to Miami over the weekend, before the rest of the team left Philadelphia — at last — for Baltimore on Sunday night. To fill out the roster, Michael Hill, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations, brought in six new players and promoted several others, including Eddy Alvarez, a 30-year-old infielder who won a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics as a short-track speedskater and has never played in the majors.

“In our jobs, we always plan for Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and that’s normally one or two players at a time,” Hill said. “To encounter the numbers that we had to place on the injured list and respond to that has been a challenge.”

The Marlins’ crisis also affected the Phillies, who stayed idle for a week as they underwent extensive testing. A coach and a clubhouse staffer tested positive, but no Phillies players have. First baseman Rhys Hoskins acknowledged Monday that players sometimes wondered if the league was being overly cautious in sidelining them, but he stopped short of blaming the Marlins.

“Look, I think everyone would be lying if they said they weren’t frustrated, but we knew the volatility of the virus coming into the season, and we knew these things were a possibility,” Hoskins said. “Not ideal, but here we are. We get to play again. We’re getting ready to — hopefully — continuously play throughout the rest of the season.”

Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he wondered how sharp his players would be after another unexpected layoff in a year now full of them. Yet he said he felt empathy for the Marlins, not resentment.

“I don’t think it’s something they tried to go out and do,” Girardi said. “There’s 18 players that are affected, and they all want to play and they can’t play for at least two weeks. So I feel for what they’re going through; to have to ride home on a sleeper bus, and their healthy guys probably wondering every day, ‘Am I going to be sick tomorrow? Am I going to be shut down?’ They were locked up in a hotel, basically.

“And the one thing I’ve learned through this, in talking to people, is I think there’s a sense of guilt, sometimes, when a player gets it. And that’s a tough way to live, because there are so many ways to contract this, and a lot of times you don’t know if someone around you has COVID.”

That is the strange and sad reality of playing in a pandemic. There are so many ways it can fall apart, and you never know how long you’ll stay safe.

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