Why these Cubs look more equipped than most to handle coronavirus season

Why these Cubs look more equipped than most to handle coronavirus season

Houston Astros general manager James Click said this week that “whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win.”

Not that his thinking is new. Baseball people have been beating that trash can for weeks when it comes to what it’s going to take to successfully navigate a 60-game season and playoffs during a pandemic.

What’s more, his point doesn’t quite hit the mark. Because winning the attrition battle doesn’t matter if enough attrition in other places derails the league.

But assuming Major League Baseball can actually pull off a nine-week season starting next week and that the Astros’ pandemic algorithm applies at all by mid-October, the Cubs might be far better positioned to still be playing than they seemed to be in before COVID-19 wiped out most of the season.

“There are certain advantages to us being a veteran team,” right-fielder Jason Heyward said. “There are certain advantages to us playing together for a number of years.”

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And that could be a key for any team during this MLB experiment — not only in terms of collective maturity and willingness to buy-in to health and safety protocols, on and off the field, but also to stay focused enough to perform during the daily strangeness.

“The understanding of what championship baseball looks like for a lot of these guys and having a veteran group in the type of environment that we’re having to deal with on a daily basis is a huge, huge bonus,” manager David Ross said. “I don’t need to hold their hand for anything.”

Ten current members of this team, including the first-year manager, were among the players in the room the night in Cleveland that Heyward called that famous 10th-inning, rain-delay meeting before the Cubs finished off their historic Game 7 victory four years ago.

They’ve had three winning seasons together since then, including two more playoff runs. And even before the pandemic shut down sports across the country in March, the urgency of a win-or-blow-up-the-core scenario was an open discussion.

Fast-forward four months.

“This is not a normal setup, and we know we can’t take any moment for granted,” Heyward said. “This group has done a great job of that over the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we carry that into a situation like this. Because I’ve seen us do a lot of great things in a short amount of time, when our backs are against the wall.”

It might not be a coincidence that the Cubs have been the only team in the league without a player or coach testing positive since intake testing began two weeks ago.

“That veteran kind of leadership has helped as well because it’s not normal,” said outfielder Steven Souza Jr., a veteran grizzled by a severe knee injury that wiped out his 2019 season and the long rehab battle that has brought him to full physical capacity on the brink of this truncated season.

MORE: How the MLB shutdown helped Steven Souza Jr. get ready for the season

“I’m away from my family, and then for the most part we’re just trying to stay to ourselves because nobody wants to accidentally or asymptomatically contract this virus because that means 14 games regardless,” Souza said. “So I think you’re watching guys handle their business like complete pros.”

Ross, Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks — they all won together in 2016 and remain invested in each other.

But even the newcomers such as Souza, reliever Jeremy Jeffress, second baseman Jason Kipnis and relievers such as Casey Sadler, Dan Winkler and Ryan Tepera bring a combination of veteran maturity, adversity-tested perspective and something to prove.

“You look at the amount of years that guys have played that have been added here,” Souza said, “and I think in times of distraction as a veteran, you’re able to refocus and reshape what you’re able to do to be successful.”

Listening to the holdover Cubs talk since arriving for summer training camp, the messages have sounded almost identical, whether about the buy-in with safety precautions or the trust in teammates to help keep each other safe — and even accountable away from the ballpark.

“You’re not worried about relationship-building in the middle of all this,” Ross said. “These guys have a background with each other. They’ve done special things with each other. That’s a big bonus for us.”

He said he considered the backgrounds of all the newcomers with something to prove another bonus.

“I’m just speaking for myself,” Souza said. “But when I was young, it’s easy to see the distractions and kind of focus on those things, and it’s just a lot harder to stay in the moment. With this group, those 10 set the tone really well. And it just feels like business as usually with this group.

“And I think that’s going to pay dividends.”


Cubs' David Ross' plan for weekend off: watch baseball, hang out with his dog

Cubs' David Ross' plan for weekend off: watch baseball, hang out with his dog

The Cubs have a few unforeseen days off from playing after several new Cardinals tested positive for COVID-19 this week. 

With this weekend’s series in St. Louis postponed, the Cubs returned to Chicago, where they’ll remain until heading to Cleveland on Tuesday morning. They have a light workout scheduled for pitchers on Saturday and a simulated game scheduled on Sunday.

What will Cubs manager David Ross be doing otherwise with no games scheduled, though?

“Me personally, it’s just sitting on my couch with my dog and watching baseball and highlights and catching a game,” Ross said Saturday.

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Cleveland is coincidentally in town this weekend, facing the White Sox on the South Side. Ross has the opportunity to get an early look at the Indians ahead of their two-game series on Tuesday and Wednesday. They're playing on Sunday Night Baseball this week in place of the Cubs and Cardinals.

“We’ll definitely have baseball on, try to get a nice meal delivered and just hang out with myself. I’m pretty awesome by myself,” Ross said with a smile.


Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

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

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”