PITTSBURGH — One by one, Cubs players and coaches emerged from the tunnel Wednesday, into the visitors dugout and onto the field for pregame work at PNC Park, each one wearing or carrying a protective mask.
What’s with all the masks on the field today?
“I’m not at liberty to say,” one Cub said.
You guys have an outbreak?
“Rossy will have to tell you,” said another, “whatever he’s allowed to.”
Of course this was the way this long, grueling, emotional, roller-coaster, losing season was going to end for a Cubs team with one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the majors.
Almost everything that could happen during a baseball season has already happened to this club: from inexplicable contention for six weeks to franchise-altering losing streaks and a trade-deadline roster demolition that wiped out the rarest of championship cores in 24 hours flat.
And on Wednesday afternoon, with 157 games in the books, Patrick Wisdom went on the injured list with what appeared to be a COVID-19-related issue — the club wouldn’t say — as the Cubs braced for a final-days outbreak many in the organization considered inevitable.
“This has been as much of an emotional ride as I’ve ever experienced,” bench coach Andy Green said.
Green said that more than three weeks ago, addressing the media as the acting manager because manager David Ross was isolated from the team for 10 days after he and team president Jed Hoyer tested positive for COVID-19.
“For me it’s been the longest-feeling season of my career, for sure,” veteran infielder Matt Duffy said a few days later, only partly alluding to the specter of COVID-19 adding to what’s already one of the toughest daily grinds in professional sports.
“It’s always felt like it’s inevitable that it’s going to run through the clubhouse at some point,” Duffy said, “seeing what other teams go through, so there’s that looming over your head.”
Whatever happens on the COVID front during these final four days of the season for the Cubs, the non-specific news that reared up suddenly in Pittsburgh on Wednesday also delivered a stark reminder of an ugly reality that remains:
This pandemic hasn’t gone away, with more transmissible variants spreading and filling up ICU’s and morgues around the country again as we head into the fall — the vast majority of those cases involving the unvaccinated.
And that means even in the contrived insulation of an idyllic baseball world, safety rules, protocols and possibly even some form of vaccine mandates (in play during labor talks this fall) could be part of next season.
“I don’t know if it’s ever gonna [be completely gone], right?” Ross said. “I think to some extent it’s gonna be something we have to deal with moving forward. I hope it’s not to the severity and to the space where the life-threatening conditions that some people were under and how scary that is.
“Hopefully we figure out medically the best way to continue to get to a space where it’s not something we have to worry about as much.”
That place medically would obviously be a place with better vaccination rates.
Until then, those in the game continue to learn — perhaps none more than a second-year Cubs manager who has yet to manage a baseball game without pandemic conditions in play.
“They did not tell me about those things in the interview process,” Ross joked. “Look, everybody’s gone through some form of adversity within this pandemic. We’ve had our fair share, even as minimal as it’s been.
“I think we just feel … fortunate,” he said.
Consider that even in April, two coaches tested positive, causing five players to be shut down for a few days because of contact tracing (all testing negative) — with ace Kyle Hendricks, who made his final start of the season Wednesday, scratched from a start as a precaution because of cold symptoms.
Hendricks, who was one of the first Cubs to get vaccinated, tested negative.
And former postseason hero Jake Arrieta, who pushed back on vaccine science during a media Zoom session in May, punctuated his exit in August with an unsolicited comment after another poor start, snarling at a senior reporter on a Zoom call to remove his mask.
Arrieta was released within an hour.
Ross called navigating the protocols and keeping the team relatively virus-free “a real challenging thing to do” this season.
“And yet we’re here, and we’re still playing, and we are five games away,” he said.
Make it four after Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Pirates.
“And we’re trying to really keep focus on how to get better as an organization and not go back so far into 2020, or like where it was when you’re walking on pins and needles every day,” he said.
“I think there’s been some form of, ‘This is the world we’re living in now. How can we navigate in that space?’"
Perhaps no manager has ever started his career with as much real-world threat job and roster or the level of ad hoc problem-solving on a monthly and sometimes daily basis. He said it might even make him a better leader in the long run.
But on this day he’s reminded mostly of how fast this thing can bite when you least expect it, even when you think you’ve gotten through the season and escaped it.
“Today definitely felt a lot more like [when the March 2020 shutdown hit],” Ross said. “And the last thing that’s really been on my radar as we come to the end of the season has been any kind of off-the-field issues, for a little while.”