Sure? No. But Rob Manfred is still optimistic about this season.
By Tyler Kepner
In ordinary times, a baseball fan might wake up in the wee hours of the morning and check the late-night scores. In the throes of a pandemic, the sport’s commissioner wakes up around the same time and checks the overnight coronavirus test results for the 30 major league teams.
The news comes to Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, in an email from the league’s drug, health and safety department. Its contents set the agenda for the day: calm or crisis?
“The test results from today will come in about 2:30 in the morning tomorrow,” Manfred said in a phone interview Monday. “I wake up sometime between 2:30 and 4:30, and the most important email is what we had that day.
“I love the days when there’s a little line that says: ‘We reported 1,247 tests and there were no new positives.’ That’s headed for a good day.”
All things considered, most days are good for Manfred. After months of acrimonious negotiations with the players union, baseball is back. Charlie Blackmon is hitting over .400 for Colorado; Aaron Judge is on a home run tear for the New York Yankees; Fernando Tatis Jr. is breaking out as a superstar for San Diego.
But Monday, for the 15th day in a row, the MLB schedule included at least one postponement because of the coronavirus. The Miami Marlins are back from their outbreak, but now the St. Louis Cardinals are shut down through Thursday, at least, and haven’t played since late July.
The Marlins had 20 positive tests, including 18 players. The Cardinals have had 17 positives, including 10 players. The infections have limited St. Louis to just five games this season; other teams will have played as many as 18 through Monday.
That has created a perplexing scheduling issue: If the Cardinals return as scheduled Friday, they will need to squeeze 55 games into 45 days to reach their originally scheduled 60 games. Baseball could be forced to accept that some teams may not play all their games, and award playoff berths based on winning percentage.
But if the Cardinals cannot slow their outbreak, which first emerged July 30, how can they play enough games to have a legitimate season?
While some of the infected Cardinals are asymptomatic, others have been treated in the emergency room. They have dealt with fevers, coughs, headaches and uncertainty.
“It’s real,” John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president for baseball operations, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “People are sick. It’s scary because they just don’t know what the next day is going to bring for them.”
How does Manfred know it is responsible to play, considering the travel involved in using 30 venues across the country?
“Can I tell you I’m 100 percent sure? No,” Manfred acknowledged. “Do I think about it every day? Yes. But I’ll just give you a couple of things that are important.”
The commissioner then listed three factors: “No. 1, throughout tens of thousands of tests, we have a positive rate that’s less than one-half of 1 percent. That’s way better than wandering around in the general population. No. 2, the bulk of our activity is outdoors. Just look at what’s going on in the rest of the world: outdoors is better than indoors, and our sport is generally distanced. And No. 3, we have not cross-contaminated. I think that’s a really important thing. Those three things give me some level of comfort that we can continue to do this in a way that’s safe.”
The league has shown significant caution with the Marlins and the Cardinals. After Miami’s outbreak, MLB sidelined both the Marlins and the Phillies — the team they had played after learning of four positive tests — for a week. But there is no mandate for shutting teams down as soon as a player tests positive.
“There are guidelines that we have, but they’re just guidelines,” Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s medical director, said in an interview Monday. “We have to look at the totality of the situation — where the cases are coming from, the number of cases. I don’t think you can say that this is going to be the way we approach everything. It’s so individual. What the contact tracing is like. What does the spread pattern look like? It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis going forward.”
The Cleveland Indians’ weekend case illustrates how tempting it can be for players to violate pandemic protocols. On Sunday, they sent starter Zach Plesac back to Cleveland, via rental car, after learning that he had left the hotel to go out in Chicago. Another starter, Mike Clevinger, stayed with the team and flew home with his teammates but was found on Monday to have also violated the rules in Chicago. The Indians said in a statement that Clevinger — like Plesac — would be quarantined and undergo testing, and they named Adam Plutko to replace him as the starter Tuesday.
From a business standpoint, baseball is essentially racing to the postseason, staging regular-season games without ticket revenue in hopes of reaping the lucrative rights fees from TV networks for playoff games in October. A large-scale outbreak would be especially chaotic and painful for the league then, so it could make sense for MLB to adopt a so-called bubble approach in the playoffs, with fewer teams and a shorter timeline.
“All I’m going to say about that is we are doing contingency planning with respect to the postseason,” Manfred said.
In MLB’s new playoff format, a 16-team field will be whittled to eight teams — a much more manageable number — after a best-of-three first round. If the league staged the rest of the postseason at neutral sites, it would avoid the risks of travel and theoretically have a better chance of keeping the players safe.
“We’d have to look at the logistics with baseball operations, but if you were able to get down to a point where you had a limited number of teams for a limited number of games, I think that type of thing could work better,” Green said. “I think that’s certainly a lot more feasible than playing a whole season in a bubble.”
Then again, he added, it is impossible to predict how and where the virus will spread by October. Players and teams must be disciplined, the league must be nimble — and the doctors must stay on high alert.
“The majority of teams are doing a really good job with this, and I’m hopeful we’ll get through,” Green said. “But I don’t think I’ll relax until the end of the World Series.”