Miami Marlins outbreak postpones 2 games and rocks MLB’s return
By Tyler Kepner
The return of Major League Baseball took a troubling turn earlier this week when a looming threat became reality: an outbreak of positive coronavirus tests within a team.
While MLB officials said there were no plans to suspend or cancel the season — which began just last Thursday — two games were postponed Monday after the Miami Marlins learned that at least 14 members of the team’s traveling party, including 12 players, had tested positive for the virus.
The Marlins’ games against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday and Tuesday were postponed, as was the New York Yankees’ game Monday in Philadelphia, where the Marlins spent the weekend.
“The health of our players and staff has been and will continue to be our primary focus as we navigate through these uncharted waters,” Derek Jeter, the Marlins’ chief executive, said in a statement, adding that the team needed to “take a collective pause and try to properly grasp the totality of this situation.”
For many Americans, the long-delayed return of baseball was a sign of normalcy during a pandemic that has shut down much of the nation and thrown daily activities into disarray. Even without fans in the stands, the league’s return had seemed like a triumph, or at least a comforting sight, after more than four months with a largely shuttered sports landscape.
But the news about the Marlins was a stark reminder of the challenge facing a country trying to find a more normal routine. If baseball, a $10 billion industry operating in a controlled environment and employing frequent testing cannot prevent infections, then how are schools, restaurants and other retail businesses going to do so?
“I think it’s another indictment of the United States’ overall approach to COVID,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He added: “We find ourselves impatient. And that’s what I think we’re suffering from, both in terms of not just Major League Baseball but for every other thing we’re trying to do.”
The crisis baseball is confronting also raises concerns for other sports planning their return, particularly professional and college football, given the shifting geography of the outbreak. While many leagues preparing to start up again are doing so in contained environments, playing all their games in one or two locations, the National Football League is planning on holding games at its usual stadiums across the country, like baseball.
The Marlins, for now, are staying in Philadelphia, Jeter said, while awaiting the results of another round of testing for players and staff. The Phillies were tested at their ballpark Monday while the Yankees stayed at their hotel, which the Marlins did not share.
The Orioles, who were in Miami, made plans to return to Baltimore, where they are scheduled to host the Marlins today and Thursday.
The Marlins news heightened a sense of dread among players and coaches who opted to participate in this season. At least a dozen players opted out before the restarted season.
“This thing really hits home now that you see half a team get infected and go from one city to another,” said Washington Nationals manager Dave Martínez.
He added: “I’ll be honest with you, I’m scared, I really am.”
The league is attempting to stage a 60-game regular season using 30 stadiums across the United States, including a Class AAA ballpark in Buffalo for the Toronto Blue Jays, who were barred from playing home games by the Canadian government because of the risk of travel to and from the United States.
Baseball’s decision to play games at home sites stands apart from professional basketball and hockey, which are preparing to resume play in contained environments, rather than across the continent. The National Basketball Association, which will resume its season Thursday, is housing players and holding games at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., while the National Hockey League is using sites in two cities when it restarts Saturday: Toronto and Edmonton.
Those leagues are also using fewer teams and planning fewer games than baseball is; both were deep into their seasons when sports shut down in mid-March, so hockey teams will move directly to the playoffs, with 24 of 31 teams taking part, while the NBA’s plan involves only 22 of its 30 teams for the end of its season.
The professional football season is set to begin on Sept. 10, while decisions about fall college sports, including football, have been largely left to university presidents and conferences. While some conferences, including the Ivy League, have canceled fall sports and others have already pared down their schedules, most major universities are expecting to move ahead with varsity sports. But even they have acknowledged the tenuous nature of those plans.
“I’m personally concerned about schools reopening in hot spot states, and we know where they are,” Saag said. “I think Major League Baseball is kind of the vanguard on this, and the other collections of people — be it students or campuses or the NBA perhaps — it’s all going to follow suit because we’re in such a big hurry.”
In an interview with The New York Times in May, Commissioner Rob Manfred outlined the challenges of planning baseball during the pandemic.
“One of the things that floated up from one of the experts is, ‘Gee whiz, a way that you can do this is to quarantine players,’” Manfred said, adding later, “And then you’re going to start a 4 1/2 month season, and your life is going to be hotel to ballpark, back to hotel, room service, not see your family.”
“So then we realized, gee, that’s pretty tough. So then we started talking about including families, and you realize as you get into that phase that you get into quarantine numbers that are insane.”
In an interview with MLB Network Monday evening, Manfred said, “We knew that we were going to have positives at some point in time. I remain optimistic that the protocols are strong enough that it will allow us to continue to play, even through an outbreak like this, and complete our season.”
“I don’t put this in the nightmare category,” he added.
Baseball adjusted its schedule so that teams would play only within their geographic divisions this season, yet reduced travel is still travel, with all it entails — flights, bus rides, checking in and out of hotels, meals, hauling equipment from clubhouse to clubhouse, and so on. Some of the official safety rules seemed unrealistic and have been routinely broken, such as the ban on high-fiving and spitting, strict social distancing in the dugout and replacing any balls touched by multiple players.
Scott Servais, the manager of the Seattle Mariners, said Monday that players and staff must be more vigilant. At big moments in games, he said, safety protocols have been ignored.
“I think we’re saying all the right stuff, but then you watch the games,” he said. “We have to do the right thing. And sometimes you let your emotions get in the way, you just react, and we weren’t clearly thinking and slowing it down enough in those spots.”
David Price, a veteran pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who opted out of playing this season, citing his family’s health, questioned the sincerity of baseball’s commitment to players’ well-being.
“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” Price wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! 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.”