MESA, Ariz. — It took all of two weeks of spring training for the Cubs’ good vibes and optimism to devolve into a major buzz kill.
And the fact it was caused by one of the team’s all-time leaders in good vibes only made it worse.
In one fell swoop of bad judgment, Cubs reliever Pedro Strop violated baseball’s COVID-19 protocols, costing himself a quarantine period away from camp and his best chance of making the roster after re-signing with the club as a minor-league free agent.
He represented one of the feel-good stories in camp until then.
Now he represents an unwanted reminder of the inconvenient truth that a deadly virus — including multiple variants — continues to ravage this country, even as nationwide vaccination efforts race to catch up.
And that the sunny climes of Arizona and Florida not only are not immune to that reality — much less carefree zones of mindless fun and ballgames — but they’re also hot-spot states.
“It’s easy to get in this environment and relax,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And we did such a good job last year of following the protocols. It’s a reminder — a reminder for him, and us.”
Ross, whose management was key to the Cubs’ avoiding positive tests last year, said he plans to address Strop’s violation and re-emphasize safety measures in a team meeting Monday morning.
“Just that we’ve got to continue to stay diligent,” he said. “It’s real, and we’ve got to follow protocols.”
More than 500,000 Americans have been killed by the virus in less than a year. Experts say some mutations of the virus are more contagious than the already highly contagious original.
And despite growing levels of information and experience across the sports landscape for best safety practices, pulling off a continuous, successful spring training — never mind the six-month season to follow — is another tightrope walk for the sport.
To make it work takes buy-in from everybody from the top executives and biggest stars to the last bench hopeful and youngest prospect.
And nobody knows that better than the Cubs, who got all of that last year and became the only team in the majors without a player testing positive during the three-month return to play.
Which makes it even more disappointing that a veteran from this team — a universally popular teammate, who called his re-signing a return to “home” and a return to his “brothers.”
Ross pointed out Strop wasn’t with the Cubs last year (having signed as a free agent with the Reds in the offseason) and that he doesn’t view it as any more disappointing because of the Strop’s veteran status or popularity among teammates.
The gravity is certainly not lost on Ross — both in terms of keeping the team in compliance for its safety as well as the cost to Strop in relation to this season.
It’s unclear how much time Strop will be required to miss, with MLB overseeing the monitoring process of his case, including contact tracing that is underway.
It’s also unclear whether additional discipline could be in play — though early indications suggest the team may not take further action based on known information Sunday.
“From what I understand, you’re going to have to sit out, which is almost punishment enough for a guy who’s trying to make a team, right?” Ross said. “It’s a big deal.”
Ross said he talked with Strop Saturday night when the team got the news, and “he’s pretty disappointed.”
Strop was shown in a since-deleted social-media post posing maskless with repeat protocol violator Franmil Reyes of Cleveland and others in what appeared to be a photo taken outdoors after the Cubs played Cleveland Friday.
Reyes and teammate José Ramírez also were restricted from Cleveland’s camp and confined to quarantine status under MLB’s protocols. Their violations reportedly involved being part of a group that dined indoors at a Phoenix-area restaurant — a group that appears to have included Strop.
Outdoor dining was added to the list of allowed activities under MLB’s protocols Wednesday.
“It’s just one of those things if your friends are going out and you sit inside,” said Ross, referring to part of his conversation with Strop, “and you don’t want to be the one that says something. … We’ve just got to stay diligent with the rules.
“It is a perk to spring training out here, all the great restaurants,” he added. “You just can’t go in. You can’t eat inside. The numbers are real, how this thing spreads indoors. That’s why we’re going all these outdoor activities and trying to do as much as can outdoors, because of those numbers.”
That reality isn’t going away anytime soon. Cubs union rep Ian Happ said he doesn’t expect MLB players to be vaccinated in large numbers until perhaps May.
Until then, players face an even bigger task than they did in pulling off last year’s abbreviated season — with far more players gathered in the 30 sites than last summer, and a natural temptation to let down their guards because of last year’s success and the light of vaccines in sight at the end of the tunnel.
But the risk is far from over. No matter how sunny the day, how loud the laughter, how familiar the crack of the bat — no matter how good the vibes or how welcome the sight of Strop’s smile to his “brothers.”