‘Everyone can do better’: Baseball searches for blame amid outbreaks
By James Wagner
With the Major League Baseball season becoming more precarious seemingly by the day amid a slow but steady stream of new coronavirus cases among the teams, the league’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, issued something of a rallying cry.
“We are playing,” Manfred told ESPN on Saturday. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
Those words bothered some players in the sport and some health experts outside it. Two outbreaks — 20 cases among the Miami Marlins and six among the St. Louis Cardinals, as of Sunday afternoon — less than two weeks into the season have wreaked havoc on the schedules of eight teams and raised questions about MLB’s protocols and the role of the players’ individual responsibilities in stopping the virus.
In saying the games would go on, Manfred thrust the onus on the players.
“I don’t know Rob’s situation, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth on that one,” Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester told reporters Saturday. “But I do know we — not only the players, but families — are making sacrifices day in and day out. I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth. I guess I’ll stop there.”
MLB’s 113-page operating manual for the 2020 season, which was crafted with input from the players’ union, has details on everything from how a team should travel to proper spacing in the dugout to what to do if a player tests positive. But it does not explicitly state what should happen after an outbreak or what the threshold is for postponing games.
Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, took issue with Manfred’s comments, writing on Twitter that the virus thrives “when people insist on sticking with a poor plan to the bitter end.”
Bachynski said in a phone interview that her biggest concerns were about the plan itself. She said she was shocked when she read that the MLB manual did not detail steps for the league and players to follow after an outbreak.
MLB stopped the Cardinals, who registered their first two positive cases Friday, from playing the Milwaukee Brewers, and put the brakes on the Philadelphia Phillies, who have not had a player test positive, for seven days because of their exposure to the Marlins.
But on July 26, the fourth day of the season, the Marlins played the Phillies despite knowing they had four players test positive, a decision that has been questioned by some non-Marlins players and health experts.
“It doesn’t matter how quick the testing turnaround time is if you’re not taking appropriate actions based on the results of those tests,” Bachynski said.
Since their series against the Marlins a week ago, the Phillies have had three staff members test positive. But MLB said Saturday that it appeared that two of those tests were false positives, and “it is unclear if the third individual contracted COVID-19 from Marlins players and staff based on the timing of the positive test.” The Phillies were set to resume play Monday against the New York Yankees.
“The protocols are a series of little things that people need to do,” Manfred told The Associated Press on Saturday. “We’ve had some problems. In order to be better, it’s another series of little things. I think it’s peer pressure. I think it’s players taking personal responsibility.”
He said he also had a “constructive conversation” with the players’ union chief, Tony Clark, on Friday.
Several players have decided to opt out of the season after seeing the virus infiltrate team rosters. Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets on Sunday became the fourth player to opt out since the Marlins’ outbreak, joining more than a dozen who had made the decision before opening day.
After news of the Marlins’ outbreak surfaced, David Price, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who opted out of the season before it began, tweeted: “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”
Among those who are still playing, there is some acknowledgment that both protocols and personal behavior can improve.
“Everyone can do better. This is a learning process,” Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton said Sunday. “We learn things every day from how to do better with this on both sides. Both sides can be better. And by the time the season is over, there can still be improvements of what we could’ve done better.”
From the start, MLB and the players’ union recognized the season’s policies would evolve. The manual’s opening page states that it does not address every aspect of the season’s operations and that additional guidance may come throughout the year. Last week, MLB informed teams of tightened regulations, including designating a compliance officer for each club. More changes could be coming.
The Marlins were found to have been lax in following protocols: At least some of them did not strictly adhere to all of the rules. But players on many teams have been spotted high-fiving or spitting or getting too close too often in the dugout — all in violation of the manual.
While high-fives or fist bumps are lower-risk activities and health experts believe players and staff members are more likely to be infected away from the stadium, Bachynski said she worried that those smaller lapses suggested a larger culture of ignoring the rules even away from the field.
“If your leadership is showing how important it is and you’ve got the front office, like we have here, taking it very seriously, then that’ll trickle down to the players taking it seriously,” said Yankees pitcher James Paxton, who sits on the players’ union executive subcommittee.
Mike Zunino, a catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays who has two young children, said he thought often about not continuing to play this season after the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks.
“I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t cross your mind every day when you see positive tests come out,” he said, adding later: “I have a lot of trust in the team here, the guys, we’re doing stuff the right way. It’s a real conversation I have every day just to see how the dynamic of the league is going.”