The Cubs’ get two of the next five days off, and it probably couldn’t come at a better time for the team.
Manager David Ross called it “a little refresher” for a team that has struggled miserably at playing baseball during a 5-7 start, especially at the plate.
But the bigger value involves the COVID-19 chill running up the organization’s spine in the week since first-base coach Craig Driver tested positive for the virus, including a subsequent positive test for bullpen coach Chris Young and five non-positive players exhibiting symptoms that prompted turns on the COVID-19 injured list or — in the case of ace Kyle Hendricks — a late scratch from a start.
“I feel like every day it’s sort of a new challenge with this,” general manager Jed Hoyer said before Wednesday’s 7-0 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee. “I spend a lot of time with David Ross and [bench coach] Andy Green and our front office trying to figure out who’s available.
“I feel like the twice-daily testing [required by the positives] has become the stats I’m looking at right now, and that’s not what you want to be doing.”
On the same day Hendricks headed home to Chicago ahead of the team to isolate and await more test results, the team got some relief on the protocol front when reliever Jason Adam was cleared to return from a two-day stint on the COVID-19 IL.
“It’s a hard one to talk about right now because obviously we’ve gotten a lot of negative tests back, but given incubation periods and stuff like that, you never know when that’s going to change,” said Hoyer, who has prioritized precautionary IL moves for first signs of symptoms over the risk of greater spread by waiting.
“It feels like every day it’s a new challenge with this. … The level of fluidity has been eye-opening.”
It has been not only an ongoing stress and wakeup call for the Cubs this week, but it’s already the second significant team outbreak/scare of the young season (also the Nationals).
And that has been a reminder of the ongoing reality and risk to the 15-games-a-day, six-month major-league season — and far more so the health of the players and staff in the middle of it.
Just ask Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who battled a serious, monthlong case of COVID-19 during last year’s shutdown, then battled lingering fatigue throughout the subsequent three-month return to the field. Or Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who missed all of last season when he developed a scary case of heart inflammation related to the virus. He made his first start last week since 2019.
Ross and his players say they’re handling the stress and uncertainty of this week’s scare in relative stride, in part because of all the experience they’ve had with protocols and testing over the past year.
Wednesday’s starter Jake Arrieta was with the Phillies last year when their season was stopped just as it began because of contact and cases resulting from their Marlins opponent’s big outbreak.
“We’re obviously not in that dramatic of a situation,” Arrieta said. “It’s tough, but we have some experience with it from last year, and we’ll do whatever we have to do to make it work.”
Maybe Thursday’s off day and presumed isolation conditions will help resolve at least some of the uncertainty by the time the Cubs reconvene Friday morning to open a series against Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Hoyer’s, Ross’ and the organization’s emphasis toward that goal of team health and safety continues to be efforts to persuade those pushing back on getting vaccinated to see the value and reason behind getting the shots.
Sources estimate more than 50 percent of the Cubs’ “Tier 1” staff and players vaccinated, but they still appear well short of the 85 percent MLB requires to relax some safety protocols.
“Listen, obviously we have to get our vaccination numbers up as much as possible, not only as a team but as a culture,” Hoyer said. “But [this week] is just a reminder: It’s still out there. There’s a lot of COVID out in the world right now. You read these articles, and on the one hand you’ve got the vaccination numbers going up, which is great. But on the other hand, with variants and stuff like that it’s not as if this is going away, right?
“That’s the reality.”
Young had just become fully vaccinated at the time of his positive test, and Driver was between his two vaccine shots when he did.
So the Cubs’ outbreak/scare certainly doesn’t look like a case of protocol violations or a discipline breakdown.
That’s not only another reminder of the pervasiveness and persistence of the virus but also — as Hottovy said this week — that there’s no “100-percent foolproof way to make sure we don’t get it.”
But the science behind vaccines is as solid as the near eradication of polio since 1955 and the less than 40 years it took for the World Health Organization to declare measles eradicated in the United States — until more recent anti-vaccination movements.
“Obviously, we’re driven by the science of it, and we believe in it, and we believe it’s the right thing to do,” Hoyer said. “Not everyone shares our beliefs.”
Hoyer, Ross, coaches and several players, including Pedro Strop and Javy Báez have said publicly they have been vaccinated.
“Obviously, we are encouraging players to get it, and we’ll continue to do that,” Hoyer said. “We want to get to 85 percent because there’s obviously some advantages as a team to get there, but ultimately 85 percent is an arbitrary number. I just want these guys to get vaccinated, because we feel like it’s the right thing to do.”