In time-honored baseball parlance, the status of the MLB season is day to day.
It took a mere four days for a doomsday scenario to become ominous reality — the coronavirus tearing through the Miami Marlins, infecting 15 players and two coaches, and shutting down the ballclub at least through Sunday. There’s a ripple effect that has the 2020 season teetering on the brink.
The league, it appears, will forge ahead anyway. But any delusions that this could be a seamless operation were foiled before the completion of the first weekend.
In fact, it would be a huge upset — even bigger than I anticipated at the outset — if MLB somehow makes it through the 60-game season and an expanded postseason to crown a World Series champion in three months.
And it won’t happen unless everyone involved gets their act together, and fast. It’s unbelievable — and unconscionable — that MLB, with three Marlins testing positive Sunday in Philadelphia, on top of another earlier in the weekend, allowed Marlins players, in a team meeting via group text, to make the call to go ahead and play. That decision should have been taken out of their hands, yet there doesn’t seem to have been protocol in place to cover such a contingency.
Speaking of protocol: Goodness gracious, players absolutely must adhere to the 113-page manual put out by MLB that mandated guidelines for safe practices. Flipping from game to game on TV since last Thursday’s launch of the season, I have been struck by how cavalierly teams are dealing with social distancing, celebrating, and other rules.
Let’s hope they’ve been scared straight by the Marlins’ situation. No one knows exactly how the outbreak occurred, but with travel and hotels now added to the equation after a relatively benign “Summer Camp” stretch, it’s paramount that teams do a better job of following protocol. To their credit, the Mariners have been vigilant on this from the start, but manager Scott Servais admitted they, too, have let down their guard in the excitement of the moment.
An unnamed team official used harsher terms in speaking to The Athletic to describe baseball’s performance: “This was duct-taped together, and nobody is following the fake rules anyway.”
It was disconcerting to see Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays hugging teammate Jose Martinez and manager Kevin Cash, as well as high-fiving more than a dozen teammates, after a two-run triple gave Tampa Bay a walk-off win Sunday.
You can understand his emotions getting away from him in a moment such as that. What really alarmed me, though, were Kiermaier’s quotes in the Tampa Bay Times:
“It was a heat-of-the-moment thing for me. I don’t regret it one bit, I really don’t. I knew what I was doing. … I’m one of those guys where I’m trying to do everything in my power to keep myself motivated and the others around me, and I want everyone to always remember how much fun winning is.
“You only have so long to play this game, and I just choose not to let a pandemic or anything totally affect how I go about my business or my attitude or my demeanor. And I just hope it’s a contagious one where those fun times that we have, I hope that everyone is able to have as many of those as possible given the circumstances.”
Yes, Kiermaier really used the word “contagious,” without apparent irony, to describe his demeanor. Players need to shed this attitude, according to Dr. Thomas A. LaVeist, Dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans.
LaVeist said he initially thought baseball had the best chance of any major sport to pull off a season because of the inherent social distancing on the field, and the absence of the sort of physical contact endemic to football and basketball. But that was before he, too, started viewing the reality — few masks on players, lots of high-fiving, and even some spitting.
“I was watching the other day,” LaVeist said in a phone interview, “and I saw guys kind of casually sitting together and talking, not wearing masks, as if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.
“I get it. I was a student-athlete in college. It’s hard not to fall into those traditional behavior patterns you’re used to when you’re playing. You’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about the game.
“There are habits you develop that in many ways make you a good player. But some of those habits are things that put you at risk. I’m hard-pressed to see how you could play safely unless you’re able to curtail some of those habits. And in the case of baseball, some of those habits are not things that are necessary.”
LaVeist believes the only way MLB can succeed is to make masks mandatory, and cut out the other stuff.
“If they can actually pull back from some of those behaviors, I still think you might be able to pull it off in baseball,” he said. “I would say, try again, but you’ve got to get people to agree to change those behaviors.”
A more pessimistic outlook was expressed by Mariea Snell, assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University, who has long worked with infectious diseases. Snell said she has been skeptical all along about the ability to play sports safely during a pandemic. With the Marlins’ outbreak, she said, the only way for baseball to proceed would be to put all the players on a two-week quarantine. They would not be released to play until they tested negative — and then remain in that quarantine environment with their team the remainder of the season.
“That would be your best bet,” Snell said. “Otherwise, you have to shut it down. It isn’t safe.”
The person who would make that call, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, said Monday that this crisis was not in the “nightmare category.” I couldn’t help but think of Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin in “Naked Gun” declaring, “Nothing to see here” as people fled from the exploding warehouse behind him.
Yes, baseball will forge ahead. But no one knows how much farther it will go.