CINCINNATI — On the same day city officials in Chicago announced a return to the indoor mask mandate, former Cub Anthony Rizzo practiced for the first time since his COVID-19 case left him “knocked out for a solid six, seven days.”
Rizzo was the first major-leaguer, and to date the highest profile player, this season to publicly acknowledge he’s unvaccinated.
And while he appears close to returning to a Yankees team that just went through its second outbreak of the season, his case — and recent cases impacting teams in five of the six divisions — underscores a reality facing the Cubs and the rest of Major League Baseball as they approach the final six weeks of pennant races and a postseason on a collision course with flu season.
The COVID-19 threat to the baseball season is not over. Whether some in the game act like it or want to believe it — or not.
For the seven teams that remain under baseball’s herd-immunity vaccination threshold of 85 percent — including the Cubs — that adds a more consequential dimension to the final weeks of the season than whether they have enough young impact players they can build around for next year.
Some Cubs insiders believe an outbreak is all but inevitable, given the spikes in cases around the country, mostly among the unvaccinated, and the recent outbreaks among teams such as the Yankees and Brewers.
“I think there are definitely people that are paying some attention,” said Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks, who is vaccinated and said he believes in the science of the shot. “I’m not paying as much attention as I should, be honest with you. But it’s starting to come back. You’re seeing more people with masks. You’re seeing mask mandates in certain places.”
Starting Friday, that will include Chicago, which announced the return to indoor mask mandates Tuesday because of increasing cases of the virus in recent weeks as the more easily transmitted variants of COVID-19 spread.
Other areas of the country have shown far worse infection and hospitalization trends — including Florida, where the Cubs just played a series over the weekend.
When it comes to MLB’s $11 billion industry, cases such as Rizzo’s last week and White Sox broadcaster Jason Benetti’s breakthrough case in the past week should serve as a wakeup call for anyone in the baseball who thought the pandemic was over — and that the sport had the virus beaten.
“It should have been a wakeup call already [after] what we went through,” Hendricks said of the heavy safety protocols during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — and subsequent team outbreaks and individual cases in the game.
“If you haven’t gotten the point by now, I don’t know,” he said. "You’re not going to convince some people.”
From a competitive standpoint, the Cubs no longer have to fear that their unfortunate vaccination numbers help lead to an outbreak that takes down their shot to make the playoffs.
But even teams at the 85-percent vaccination levels have been forced to navigate recent cases as they eye the increasing stakes of an outbreak the closer they get to October.
“I had a message from the first day of camp to never take anything for granted and never relax, never get careless,” said White Sox manager Tony La Russa, whose team reached the 85-percent threshold early in the season.
“Nobody has a crystal ball about how this is all going to work,” he said, “and I don’t think anything changes now. You’ve just got to keep being careful.”
Nine teams have had players on the COVID-19 injured list in the last 10 days — the Yankees and Brewers with outbreaks involving at least five players each sidelined at the same time in the last two weeks, including starters Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, Christian Yelich and Josh Hader.
Both of those teams were at the 85-percent thresholds, with some of their IL moves coming after breakthrough positives.
That’s the kind of fine line baseball walks as a pandemic fueled by the Delta mutations of the virus threatens to surge again nationally — already happening most acutely in regions with low vaccination rates.
For example, most teams in the game still have series remaining in two of the states with some of the lowest vaccination rates and highest hospitalization increases for COVID-19 cases: Florida and Texas.
“We feel very fortunate with all that’s happened,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “There’s been a lot of positives. …
“It’s something we feel we’ve done a nice job, but that doesn’t negate us moving forward. We have to stay diligent and stay in the process.”
The Cubs’ process ends when the regular-season does. Ten teams continue to play after that — likely including at least one team each from Florida (Rays) and Texas (Astros).
At least two more teams in the playoff hunt — the Red Sox and Phillies — are reportedly not at the 85-percent vaccination rate, with the Phillies not even close, according to reports and team sources.
Meanwhile, the NFL took the bold step of implementing vaccination and safety rules so strict some consider them de facto mandates, resulting in a far higher vaccination rate than MLB — including the team from low-vaccination-rate Georgia announcing this week that 100 percent of its players were vaccinated.
It makes moments like ex-Cub Jake Arrieta’s parting shot last week at a reporter on a Zoom session to remove his mask especially conspicuous — and even more when a Padres team that struggled with an outbreak earlier this season signed the struggling Arrieta almost as quickly as the Cubs released him minutes after the churlish and ignorant comment.
Arrieta makes his Padres debut Wednesday for a team trying to hold onto the second wild-card position in the National League.
Yelich returned last week against the Cubs. Cole returned to the Yankees this week.
Rizzo, who said he was fatigued and “achy’ before getting tested, told New York media he doesn’t know when he’ll return.
And nobody can predict what’s next as baseball heads into the heat of the pennant races with COVID-19 heating up across swaths of the baseball map.
“I don’t think people have thought about it enough as far as what it could affect at the end of the season,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, it’s going to be really bad if we get to that and guys start going down with it again. I don’t know what we’re going to do exactly.”
A blueprint for the postseason already exists from last year’s bubble format. And contingencies are said to be at least in the discussion stage now.
“One thing I learned in the three years I was with MLB is there are a lot of good people facing a lot of huge issues — much more huge than who plays today and how we play this game,” La Russa said. “I saw their commitment to taking on this whole thing, and I saw what they did with COVID last year. And we got through it.
“They’re going to be on top of it. It’s just a matter of trusting them. I trust the people in charge of the game. If they have to roll back, then you go stay at the hotel. Whatever they decide.”
Given the conditions in the game and country right now, that might be the best shot left.