Cubs

Cubs met to discuss off-field COVID-19 risk: 'You can’t hold these guys’ hands'

Cubs met to discuss off-field COVID-19 risk: 'You can’t hold these guys’ hands'

Major League Baseball hasn’t had teams back on the field for even a week yet and already the Cleveland Indians banned a player from activities after somebody with the club saw a picture on social media of Franmil Reyes at a holiday party over the weekend without a mask.

The 25-year-old outfielder was allowed back into practice Wednesday following a subsequent negative test for COVID-19.

But Reyes just earned a prominent place in every clubhouse conversation over the next few weeks and months about safe practices during a pandemic — at least until the next video or picture surfaces showing a player putting himself and, by extension, teammates at risk.

That’s a conversation the Cubs already had as they convened last week.

“We all sat down and wanted to outline what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable just in terms of safety reasons for us off the field,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said Wednesday. “Because if one guy gets this thing, and you’re asymptomatic and you come to the field and you pass it off to other people, you give it to your teammates, their wives, their kids, grandparents, whatever it is — you don’t want that to happen.

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“We’re going to be as safe as possible through our guidelines and take this very seriously.”

MORE: Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

The Cubs have taken it seriously enough to get through the first two rounds of club-wide coronavirus testing without a player testing positive — the only team, at least in the National League, without a known positive.

“There has to be a certain amount of luck involved in that, let’s be honest,” general manager Jed Hoyer acknowledged. “We’re not immune from that. And we’re going to face our challenges with that at some point. I think that’s inevitable.”

The billion-dollar question is whether behavior like Reyes’ is inevitable.

How many club-hopping knuckleheads will it take to bring down a 30-team league effort?

If we find the answer, it won’t come with a punchline. 

Because this isn’t a joke. Just ask Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who did everything right and still contracted a severe, monthlong case of COVID-19 — or ask Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, who’s battling his own rough case now.

“This virus can just pop up out of nowhere and get you,” Schwarber said.

It’s why Cubs star Kris Bryant said this week he considered opting out of playing this season with a newborn at home, echoing concerns and hesitation expressed by players across baseball, from Mike Trout and Buster Posey to those who have in fact declined to play — including David Price, Felix Hernandez, Ian Desmond and Nick Markakis.

MORE: Cubs' Kris Bryant chimes in on testing concerns: 'We've got a big hill to climb'

It’s also why the Cubs have made a point to come to terms as a team — from the top of the front office down through team leadership in the clubhouse — on how seriously they’ll treat the virus and safety protocols.

On Tuesday, when first baseman Anthony Rizzo was scratched from a scrimmage because of back soreness, fill-in P.J. Higgins and the other first baseman for the game, Josh Phegley, improvised at the last-minute and shared a first-baseman’s glove.

That’s against the rules in MLB’s health and safety operations manual.

“We saw that, and it’s been addressed,” manager David Ross said. “I was assured things were sanitized.

“We talked about it.”

That’s just one of countless examples of the micro-challenges players face as they try to perform their most familiar acts on and around a baseball field under conditions that are surreal at best.

And as much stress and anxiety as that already has involved for players — in no small part to MLB’s failures to handle its in-house testing schedule the past week — it figures to increase exponentially when teams start traveling.

And the knucklehead count starts in earnest.

“You can’t hold these guys’ hands. They’re grown men,” Ross said. “But I know this group is a professional group. They understand we’re here to do a job.

“For us to succeed and win, we’re going to have to follow some criteria, and we’re not going to be able to go out to bars. That puts our teammates at risk. That puts people’s family members at risk. We have high-risk teammates; we have guys with high-risk family members at home.

“That would be an extremely selfish move on their part, and I think they understand that.”

Jason Heyward said that’s the benefit of having a veteran team with a group that has been together for years. Bryant said he wants to set an example and be a role model for safe practices. Schwarber said if baseball pulls this off, it can be a role model for the country.

But as everyone involved acknowledges, the league’s effort will only be as strong as its weakest link.

That’s why the Cubs — at least so far — have taken all the uncomfortable new rules so seriously, Schwarber said, “knowing that we can do something special here and we’re going to need every single guy in it at the end of the day. And we’re not going to take any unnecessary risks to put ourselves in jeopardy.”

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How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

One of the unnoticed benefits of Javy Báez’s game-ending single in the 11th inning Sunday against the Pirates was that it eliminated a 12th inning that would have belonged to the struggling Craig Kimbrel.

That was David Ross’ next man out of the bullpen, the Cubs manager said Monday.

Instead, we watched the man who would be — and should be — the closer pitch out of the contrived jam (man on second) that is the start of each extra inning this year, and earn the win.

Or did we?

One day after veteran Jeremy Jeffress needed just nine pitches to beat the Pirates in the best of four impressive bullpen appearances, Rowan Wick earned a four-out save in a 2-0 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

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And just like that, the Cubs unveiled a closer-by-committee scheme, if not a closer controversy.

The way the first eight games looked, it's hard to imagine having enough reliable pitchers for a quorum. much less a bona fide committee, among the 14 pitchers who have occupied roster spots in the Cubs’ pen so far.

But until or unless Kimbrel (four walks, two homers, one wild pitch and four outs so far) gets right again, that’s the plan for closing out close games, Ross said after Monday’s game.

“I think every night will be different,” he said. “Every night we’re trying to find the best matchups and who’s throwing well.”

Jeffress is the one guy in the group who has the track record, the unflappable veteran presence and the cold-blooded performance so far this year that included escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in addition to Sunday’s 11th-inning work.

Whether Jeffress was considered unavailable Monday because of high-leverage innings both Saturday and Sunday or Ross liked Wick’s 95-mph fastball/curveball mix against the middle of the Royals order, it was last year’s rookie success story on this night.

“It’s going to be a full team effort down there,” Ross said. “I’m not scared to pull the trigger in a lot of areas with a lot of those guys. They’ve done a really good job of answering the bell here lately and we’ll continue to assess on a daily basis.”

For now it has meant eight consecutive scoreless innings the last two nights against two of the worst teams in baseball for a Cubs bullpen that ranked last in the majors in ERA and several other categories.

That’s not what Ross means when he talks about looking for matchups.

But 10 games into 60-game season, that bullpen almost certainly will continue to be assessed on a daily basis top to bottom.

And with its $43 million closer looking like the weakest link since September, the end of any game with a close lead might be the most intriguing thing to watch with this team for as long as this pandemic season might last.

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Kris Bryant, Cubs keep winning with health, baseball as 'uneasiness' looms

Kris Bryant, Cubs keep winning with health, baseball as 'uneasiness' looms

The Cubs played the first of four games in four days against the Royals on Monday night.

But it was impossible to miss the COVID-19 cloud looming on the schedule Friday in St. Louis.

“It’s in the back of our minds,” manager David Ross said.

The Cardinals remained quarantined in their Milwaukee hotel Monday as this week’s series in Detroit was postponed and they dealt with a growing number of players and staff testing positive for COVID-19 — up to 13, including seven players.

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The next game on the Cardinals schedule would be Friday against the National League-leading Cubs, although that series remains at least in significant doubt while the Cardinals continue to test daily and contact trace in an effort to determine the extent of the second big coronavirus outbreak in the majors since the season opened.

In fact, the Marlins — who had 18 players test positive over several days last week — were expected to resume their season Tuesday after a weeklong shutdown, leaving the Cards as the latest, biggest threat to MLB’s efforts at staging a two-month season and postseason during a pandemic.

And leaving the Cubs to brace for what might be their highest stress, if not highest risk, part of the season yet

“There is a little bit of uneasiness to it,” third baseman Kris Bryant said.

If anybody has a right to feel uneasy about taking the field against a team that has even one potential carrier of the virus, it’s Bryant and the Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive since the process began more than a month ago.

The Cubs are taking the virus and safety protocols so seriously that Bryant was sidelined for two games because of a stomach bug that seemed nothing like a COVID-19 symptom to him — but that the team’s medical staff determined was worth the extra precaution of isolating him and putting him through extra testing.

All his tests were negative, and he returned Monday to hit a double and home run against the Royals.

“It’s a better-safe-than-sorry kind of mindset,” Ross said.

MLB has stepped up its emphasis on adhering to protocols through memos and other communication with teams over the past week, including upgrading from a suggestion to a mandate that members of traveling parties remain in hotels unless going to the ballpark.

This amid a growing number of reports that Cardinals’ personnel went out in Minneapolis on their first trip.

“As far as more rules, more restrictions, more guidelines, there’s definitely been talk about it," said Ian Happ, the Cubs’ union rep, who doesn’t seem to know what more the Cubs are expected to do.

“From the latest that I’ve seen, the Cubs are exceeding what the current guidelines are and would be well within compliance with that future guidelines or ordinances and restrictions would be.”

That includes a team policy that already restricted players and staff to hotels when not on the road.

“We had a really good discussion with Rossy at the beginning of Summer Camp,” said Happ, who, like Bryant, said the bigger issue raised in discussions among the Cubs was behavior at home.

“Because Chicago’s the best city in the world,” Happ said. “Chicago is the city where you could theoretically do all the things that we’re talking about not being able to do. Everybody was on the same page as far as what was acceptable and what was not acceptable — how important it was for us to stay healthy and the effect that you would have on your teammates, your teammates’ families.”

How a Cardinals team with strong veteran leaders such as Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina — and a front office led by admitted germaphobe John Mozeliak — would be one of first two teams with a significant outbreak the first week of the season makes about as much sense as three-batter minimums for pitchers and baseball without spitting.

But here we are.

“It’s a unique year,” Ross said.

A year with its season at a major crossroads less than two weeks in. And with a Cubs team in the possible coronavirus crossfire after going even more right off the field than it has during an 8-2 start on the field.

“The actions of one guy don’t affect just the team, don’t affect just the city, but they affect the entire league,” Happ said of the Cubs’ approach. “It’s important to remember the gravity of that.”

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