Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Compared to COVID-19’s treatment of other teams, the virus has been kind to the Cubs so far.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy bore the brunt of it, fighting a harrowing battle against COVID-19 for a month. Three staff members were delayed in joining the team due to positive COVID-19 tests before or during intake screening.

But all of the club’s tests from Tuesday came back negative, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein announced Friday -- after the Cubs pushed back workouts due to testing delays for the second time this week. No Cubs players have tested positive since this undertaking began. They’re believed to be the only National League team that can say that.


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“We can’t allow the good results thus far to create the illusion for us that we’re in control," Epstein said. “Because we’re not. The virus is the only thing in control right now. We’re taking every safeguard that we possibly can, and I’m proud of the way the players have been responding. But we can’t let our guard down and we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can control all the variables here.”

COVID-19 has wielded that control to warp baseball’s – and the world’s -- definition of lucky.

The Cubs have been “lucky,” but by no means have they been untouched by the pandemic. Hottovy’s story made such an impression on the club because of pain it caused him and his family, as he quarantined away from his young children and suffered severe symptoms.

Then there are the Cubs staff members who remain separated from the team due to the results of their COVID-19 tests. The Cubs have not released the names of those three individuals. Two coaches tested positive prior to intake screening and one front office member tested positive during intake screening, according to Epstein.

“Everyone is doing well, all things considered,” Epstein said, “and hopefully progressing to a place where they can test negative and return, but we’re not quite at that point yet.”

But at least the Cubs aren’t the Phillies -- who had 12 members of their organization test positive in the last two weeks of June alone – right?

“We’re going to face our challenges with (positive tests) at some point,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. “I think that’s inevitable."

Delays in results have been the other prominent area of concern across the league, the Cubs included. 

“There’s a bit of a tradeoff sometimes between timing and accuracy,” Epstein said. “And we prefer accuracy. And that’s what today’s tradeoff was about, was waiting for just a couple results that weren’t clear yet to make sure that they were re-tested, and we could get total clarity.

“So, all in all I think we’re getting towards a really good place with the testing program.”

Delays in testing sparked complaints across MLB last weekend, as one of baseball’s vital weapons against the virus was temporarily taken out of the equation.

Cubs manager David Ross and third baseman Kris Bryant voiced their concerns – in the transition from intake testing to regular Summer Camp testing Bryant and others went four days without being tested.

According to Epstein, the league has addressed the issue and put a backup plan in place for shipping.

“Major League Baseball had not previously tested for viruses like this before,” Epstein said. “So, to go form zero tests to 17,000 a week, I think it would have been naive to expect no learning curve whatsoever.”

The Cubs’ workout schedule was affected Tuesday and Friday. But they played evening intrasquad scrimmages both days, after receiving the late results.

At least they’re not the A’s -- who held their first position full-squad workout late Monday due to testing delays – right?

The Cubs are preaching patience. And vigilance.

One week into the 2020 baseball experiment, so far so good.

“We’ve told the players this,” Epstein said, “we’re very proud of the way they’ve conducted themselves, how seriously they’ve taken the protocols, that they understand that their actions and their decisions, their behavior here and away from the ballpark have consequences. Not just for themselves, not just for their families, but for their teammates and their teammates families, the organization, society as a whole. And they’re taking this very seriously.”

The rest is up to the virus.


Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”