MLB, Players Face More Questions Than Answers as Season Hangs in the Balance

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 5, 2020

Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, left, talks with president of baseball operations Michael Hill during baseball practice at Marlins Park, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

A season that started with everyone on guard now has pushed things on high alert.

The Miami Marlins are back to work this week after becoming the first team to botch MLB's health and safety protocols and have a COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 18 players tested positive after the season's opening weekend, and for their series at Baltimore this week, the Marlins added 16 players who weren't on their roster last week.

The St. Louis Cardinals were on hold, in quarantine in a Milwaukee hotel until finally being cleared to travel and return to the field by MLB on Tuesday evening, after 13 members of their traveling party—including seven playerstested positive for COVID-19

The outbreaks caused six teams20 percent of the leagueto sit idle over the weekend: St. Louis, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington, Philadelphia and Toronto.

Less than two weeks into this abbreviated baseball calendar, the sport faces a crisis: Clean up the mess and continue pushing toward October, or watch the season be consumed by a pandemic that as yet has no cure.

Through on-the-fly rule changes (seven-inning doubleheaders) and hurriedly adding an addendum to that infamous 113-page operations manual that largely focuses on health and safety protocols, MLB is frantically working overtime to try to make an incredibly fragile abbreviated season work.

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Will it be enough?

"Look, to this point, unfortunately, we've handled this the same way our country has handled this," said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, whose team sat idle this past weekend instead of playing the Cardinals. "We put together these guidelines and protocols that were well-intentioned, and then we handed them off to 30 individual operators, i.e., states, and asked them to do their best.

"Adherence to a set of protocols and suggestions and trying to get it right has just not gone well. It just hasn't gone well. And it's because this virus is an incredible, difficult opponent. It's put us behind the eight ball.

"I desperately want to play and finish the season. It's so important for so many people in so many places. But it's not going well right now. It's not."

Should it be going better?

Perhaps that depends on your point of view. Derek Jeter, the Marlins' chief executive officer, conducted a rare press conference this week in which he denied any "salacious" activity by his team. He admitted, however, that Miami developed a "false sense of security" during Spring Training 2.0, when nobody tested positive, and added that the players became lax in wearing their masks and following protocols.

Jeter revealed that the Marlins "had a couple of individuals leave the hotel" and said the team's review determined it was "to get coffee, to get clothes. A guy left to have dinner at a teammate's house. ... There was no hanging out at bars. No clubs. No running around Atlanta."

Catcher Yadier Molina is one of six players the Cardinals said had tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.
Catcher Yadier Molina is one of six players the Cardinals said had tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

"Hopefully, this has been a wakeup call for everyone, not only on our team but for the rest of baseball and sports in general," Jeter said.

Hopefully. Because as well-intentioned as baseball has been in attempting to, ahem, cover all of its bases, what we've all learned is that one single error can sabotage an entire team.

The league sent an updated, four-page memo to all 30 clubs in response to the Marlins outbreak, a copy of which was obtained by B/R. Among the points of emphasis: Wearing masks is mandatory in clubhouses before and after games (some clubs are said to have been doing a better job with that than others, hence the adjustment). Everyone traveling now must wear "FDA-approved surgical masks" on all flights and bus trips.

Also new this week, individual clubs must designate a compliance officer who travels with the team and will assist in enforcement of health and safety protocols and file weekly reports to MLB. Among other duties, the compliance officer is "responsible for monitoring the public areas of the hotel (e.g., restaurants, bars, fitness centers) to remind players and staff that they should not be utilizing those amenities."

"I hope people look at what happened to us and they use it as a warning to see just how quickly this is able to spread between a particular group if you're not following the protocols 100 percent," Jeter said. "You can't let your guard down whatsoever. That's the bottom line. We're battling something here that's invisible. You can't see it, you don't know how it starts, but once it gets there it has an opportunity to spread quickly."

Not even two weeks into this shortened season, baseball's schedule already looks like a stretch of asphalt that lost a battle with an ice storm. There are pockmarks everywhere and internal acknowledgments that it is going to be a Herculean challenge to get every club to 60 games. The Marlins, for example, having only played three games through Tuesday, would have to play 56 games in 54 days. The Phillies would also have to play 56 in 54 days. The Cardinals, even if they're cleared to resume playing when their next series begins Friday at Busch Stadium, would have 55 to play in 52 days.

Realistically, division standings are likely to be determined by winning percentage, as some clubs will play 60 games and others will fall short of that. A side issue to the coronavirus now is competitive integrity: If Team A wins the division via a higher winning percentage yet plays four fewer games than Team B, that's going to go down like a shot of vinegar. Especially if Team B is diligent about following health protocols.

Already, some players, like San Francisco starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, voiced displeasure with Commissioner Rob Manfred's statement to ESPN's Karl Ravech over the weekend that "the players need to be better." Among Samardzija's points: "Anyone with smarts who has been watching, we're the ones out there putting ourselves at risk on the field. It's easy to say things like that from up top."

But as the actions of players affect their peers, the fissures appear to be growing between players, too, on the issue of personal responsibility.

"We did everything right, and we paid for it," veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen told The Athletic's Starkville podcast after his Phillies were forced to sit idle for seven days beginning last Monday following their exposure to the Marlins in a game on July 26. 

"I was upset at everything that's transpired through that—whoever decided to step out or not necessarily follow the health and safety protocol. That upset me. … We followed all of the health and safety protocols. We knew that was important. We understood that's what we needed to do to be able to play this game. … I'm sitting here at home, watching 28 to 27 to 26 other teams play, and we're sitting home—all [testing] negative, by the way. And we have to watch this happen while we did nothing wrong."

The Chicago Cubs are the only team with zero positive tests since intake testing began with the resumption of Spring Training 2.0 last month. The Los Angeles Dodgers have made it a point to work as a team and hold each other accountable, as veteran Justin Turner publicly disclosed over the weekend to SportsNet LA sideline reporter Alanna Rizzo:

Another challenge potentially just up ahead revolves around motivation. Competitive teams like the Dodgers and Cubs might strictly adhere to protocols for a chance to win a title, while some other clubs that begin to fall out of the race could become more lax, especially on the road, where the temptations are greater. Or they could simply see a raft of players opt out of the season. And then, of course, if there are more outbreaks, more games will be lost.

MLB so far is not fining players for breach of the listed protocols. Indeed, trying to play baseball through a pandemic is an unprecedented situation, and everyone is learning as they go.

But everything eventually returns to economics, and games lost to COVID-19 present a unique financial dilemma. While the unpleasant negotiations earlier this summer ultimately resulted in an order from Manfred to play a 60-game season—and pay players full per-game salaries for each of those 60 games—what happens if a team plays 57 games? Or 54? Do the players only get paid for those games, or will they be paid for the full 60-game season?

So far, all indications are that players will be paid for a full 60-game season regardless. But if some test positive and cause more games to be canceled, one lever MLB could pull is to threaten the infected teams with pay only for however many games they are able to play.

Nobody wants that. The fervent hope is that, similar to the first weekend of uneven testing on July 4, things smooth out from here.

But it's hard to see how playing games with dozens of personnel who need to travel amid a pandemic offers anything close to smooth sailing. Which is why the how has become amplified in the cases of the Marlins and the Cardinals. Did these outbreaks occur because not all players followed the protocols, or did everyone adhere to the rules and the virus still caught them?

The former doesn't necessarily mean things would be foolproof if everyone followed the proper procedures, but at least it offers the possibility that the season can reach a reasonable conclusion if they do.

If it's the latter, well, we may not have many more weeks to go.

Yes, there are reasonable questions as to whether the sport should even be attempting to play through a pandemic. And yes, there are those who claim this is just a money grab. But there also are points to be made that the attempt is worth it: One glance at the enormous television ratings on ESPN, Fox and TBS gives credence to those who believe the country needs the game as an outlet right now in a time of high anxiety and stress.

"One of the first, most important things we can do is to have a little empathy for our players," Jeter said, delivering a useful reminder to all of us that maybe should reach beyond just the Marlins' borders in this country. "They've been stricken with a virus for which there is no cure other than to run its course. Our players and coaches went into this knowing that their health is on the line."

He added: "You're seeing how quickly this is spreading not just in our clubhouse, but it's spreading across the country, across the world. This is not limited to a Miami Marlins situation. Obviously, looking back, guys would have done a little better. They would have kept their masks on. They would have social distanced. But we get a chance to reset and start all over again. We're fortunate to be able to have that opportunity."

Less than two weeks into the season, Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain decided to sit out the remainder of the schedule over concerns regarding the coronavirus.
Less than two weeks into the season, Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain decided to sit out the remainder of the schedule over concerns regarding the coronavirus.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

In the days since the Marlins' and Cardinals' outbreaks, two BrewersAll-Star Lorenzo Cain and pitcher Shelby Miller—became the latest players to opt out. Those in the industry expect the trickle of players opting out to continue throughout the season and emphasize that the decisions should be greeted with empathy and understanding.

They also continue to find meaning and joy in what they do and vow to continue to find a path to complete this season.

"Absolutely. I'm looking forward to getting to 7 o'clock when we get to play again," Counsell said. "That's when we get to do what we love to do. I think it is for players, too.

"It's the best time of the day. We get to compete and forget about what's going on and, hopefully, put on a good show for those at home."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.