Rob Manfred

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.”


Cubs, other players see 'nightmare' in coronavirus that MLB doesn't

Cubs, other players see 'nightmare' in coronavirus that MLB doesn't

Three more major-league players opted out of the 2020 season in the last two days as the Marlins and Cardinals dealt with coronavirus outbreaks that threaten to force a league shutdown.

They included Brewers All-Star center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who cited “the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time” in a statement Saturday.

If there’s anything more surprising than Cain’s decision on the day another Brewers game against the Cardinals was postponed because of more COVID-19 cases among the Cards, it might be that more players didn’t follow him out the door.

“It’s a crazy time that we’re in,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said. “You can’t second-guess anybody that wants to make a decision like that.”

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Not when Major League Baseball opts all in through a Marlins cluster of more than half its roster and a Cardinals outbreak that jumped from two to at least five with Saturday morning’s latest test results — tracking and counting infections of the virus with the cold efficiency of numbers in a box score to determine its next move.

Are 18 Marlins too many to replace from the 60-player pool? How many Cardinals are too many? If the incubation period for the virus is up to 10-14 days, are five days of postponements enough, if players stay in their hotel rooms and get tested every day?

All the baseball-schedule calculus applied to the infection numbers and rates coincides with memos the past week from the commissioner to teams emphasizing stricter adherence to safety protocols and mandating each team assign a compliance officer to monitor players.

It also coincides with veiled threats from commissioner Rob Manfred to players through a conversation with the union leader and an interview on MLB Network in which he said: “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general, and there is no reason to quit now.”

Tell that to Cain, or the Giants’ Buster Posey or the Marlins’ Isan Díaz, who saw enough with his own team to pack up and head home Friday.

The commissioner isn’t the one on the planes or in the hotels or exposed to the opponent with all those coronavirus cases.

“This is a health thing,” Cubs shortstop Javy Báez said. “We’ve got to think about our family, the things that could happen to our family. … You could get this virus any way.”

So far the Cubs haven't had a player express a desire to opt out since outfielder Mark Zagunis made that decision while on the South Bend squad as the season opened, general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday.

And the vast majority of players have been clear about their desire to play this season. Many also have been just as clear about wanting safe workplaces and wanting league and team officials to treat health risks as seriously as economic risks.

“We have had to be fluid,” Manfred said during that same MLB Network interview, “but it is manageable.”

Until the virus does what to how many players?

That’s the thing — the health thing.

“I don’t see it as a nightmare,” Manfred said earlier in the week when talking about the Marlins outbreak that already had grown to 15 players and forced a postponement of their next two series as players remained quarantined in Philadelphia hotel rooms.

The Cubs, by contrast, have been borderline paranoid in their precautions, some of which exceeded MLB’s safety protocols from the start. They’re the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began last month.

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

“I don’t know Rob’s situation, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth on that one,” Lester said when asked about Manfred’s apparent finger pointing at players for putting the league schedule in jeopardy.

“But I do know,” he added, “that not only the players but families are making sacrifices day in and day out — like I said, I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth. I guess I’ll stop there.”

So what exactly would constitute a “nightmare” for a league trying to stage a 60-game season during a deadly pandemic if not half of a team contracting a virus that has killed more than 152,000 Americans and made hundreds of thousands more severely ill — including current and recent professional athletes such as Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.

“Tommy Hottovy getting it and not making it through it — that’s a nightmare scenario,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “My understanding is the guys on the Marlins are doing pretty well with it. This is a virus that has killed a lot of people. As long as guys are getting it with not a lot of symptoms, I guess you could look at it as a positive.

“But as far as whole teams getting it, that’s the scary part of this whole thing.”

MLB certainly is doing the right thing by postponing Marlins and Cardinals games until doing more testing and contact tracing. And any additional measures that improve safety are good.

But whole teams getting this virus — like we’ve already seen — is not only scary, but also, without question, a “nightmare.”

If it’s not, what is baseball even doing here?

If it’s not prepared to consider a shutdown over the Marlins outbreak — or at least a season shutdown of that team — what is it waiting for? More severe cases? Somebody the stature of Cain or Posey to leave for a hospital instead home to their families?

Maybe they can stop counting the numbers for their test-result box score long enough to decide what the answer is.

Otherwise, they’re leaving it up to Cain and anybody who might follow him to give them another set of numbers to start counting.

“If somebody wants to tap out here, we obviously understand,” Báez said. “And we’re going to be on the same page with them.”


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

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

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred can point the finger at players and threaten the union with a shutdown all he wants — and maybe the Marlins deserve some of the scorn they’re getting from around the league for the massive coronavirus outbreak that has shut down their own team since Sunday.

But the commissioner will have as much reason to look at the mirror as he will at Miami if COVID-19 shuts down this league in the next two weeks, never mind the next two days.

Because a week into this ad hoc season, about the only thing that seems clear is that baseball is flying by its ass on too many foreseeable issues.

To be fair, this is an undertaking without precedent or blueprint, during a deadly pandemic in a country without a coherent federal response.

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But how were the Marlins allowed to play Sunday once they knew they had the first four players test positive? And five days later, the Cardinals are postponed because of two? And as the Marlins’ number climbed to 18 of the 33 on that opening trip to Philadelphia, where’s the provision that accounts for that level of outbreak?

For everything anticipated and addressed in a hefty Operations Manual covering testing procedures, safety protocols and player pools, MLB conspicuously left unaddressed issues that already have become troublesome and potentially devastating during the first week of play — from things as small as rain-delay protocols to whether a team with a major outbreak can be dropped for the season.

The smaller one played out Thursday night in Cincinnati, when despite a stormy forecast that all but assured no chance to play, the Reds’ efforts to wait for a “window” to play meant hours of unnecessary time at the ballpark, much of it indoors, until the game was finally postponed.

“The projected forecast was probably the worst that I’ve ever seen in Cincinnati playing there,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who tweeted his displeasure from the clubhouse that night over the apparent disconnect between safety protocols and such an extended rain delay.

That the league didn’t take control from the home team in such cases this season with no gate receipts in play — or at least specify new guidelines for this season — might be a small oversight, but it is an oversight.

“MLB’s making a lot of adjustments on the fly right now in a lot of areas,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Maybe that’s one they will consider after that.”

Adjustments on the fly. That’s the problem when it comes to foreseeable events, especially those even more important than rain delays — like what you’re prepared to do with a major outbreak involving one team.

In the short term, it meant scrambling to approve seven-inning games for all the doubleheaders that are starting to pile up on the schedule. It all goes back to what Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said the first week of summer training camp.

Bryant, the team’s former union rep, said he “absolutely” thought the health and safety protocols were rushed compared to all the time spent haggling over economic terms to restart the season.

RELATED: Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

The context at the time involved delays in early coronavirus test results.

But fast-forward to the first week of actual games and traveling, and the season is already teetering. And the blame game is starting.

And the Cubs, who by all accounts have done everything right, could be among those caught in the crossfire.

The Cubs are the league’s only team without a positive test among players since intake testing began in June. And the team’s respect for the rapid spread of the virus and its internal planning was so thorough that it included anticipating specific challenges for players on the road — including switching from its longtime hotel in Cincinnati to one that offered an outdoor, rooftop area for players to privately gather for a beer and have enough space to safely distance, along with dedicated spaces in the hotel for food delivery.

“We’re going to try to keep controlling what we can control and do our part,” said Ross, whose team is off to a 5-2 start after beating the Pirates on Friday.

What exactly all the Cubs’ good health and their good start means even by Monday is anybody’s guess, especially after reports Friday of the Cardinals’ positive tests during the first leg of a three-city trip — and subsequently postponed game against the Brewers.

An investigation into Miami’s outbreak reportedly incriminated the Marlins for lapses in safety precautions, something baseball insiders already seemed to know.

Manfred, who issued a memo of new regulations to teams Friday, also reportedly told union leader Tony Clark that he could be forced to shut down the season if players throughout MLB don’t do a better job.

Of isolating, distancing, wearing masks? Of avoiding bars, golf courses, high-fives and spitting? Of staying bubble-wrapped while traveling to play baseball during a global pandemic?

Maybe a big outbreak on a team wasn’t inevitable, especially the first weekend of play. But it was certainly possible and likely enough to plan for it — at least to have an answer for whether a team can be shut down and the league continue.

Because that might be the best answer for the Marlins — not to mention the rest of the league.

Assuming the Phillies remain healthy enough to continue after their exposure to the Marlins, and the Cardinals’ outbreak remains limited, MLB should scuttle the Marlins season, freeze the team’s transactions, assure the players get their remaining prorated salaries and cover the team’s loss of remaining local broadcast revenue.

This baseball season was never going to be anything short of treacherous to pull off, especially without the bubble concepts being used by basketball and hockey.

But it might have been planned better. The Cubs have shown that much.

Rizzo said the Cubs have been so “strict and tight” with their internal safeguards that even if a prominent player forgets his ID badge, “they’re pretty ticked off at you.”

“We don’t know where this [virus] hides all the time,” he said.

Rizzo said he’s heard none of the Marlins players have had severe symptoms, at least so far.

“I guess that’s a positive,” he said. “But as far as whole teams getting it, that’s the scary part of this whole thing.

“I know that some point the league and the players were ready for a team to come down with it. And it spreads like wildfire. That’s what this does. That’s why our whole country’s in shambles because of it.”

Except it’s not clear that anybody was ready for a whole team to come down with it. And, consequently, the season’s on the brink barely a week into games.

Rizzo said he continues to hold out faith that the season will be played — mostly because he says the alternative is to live in fear over it.

What gives him the faith?

“Just today. Playing today,” he said. “It’s really easy to listen to all the [outside] noise. But we come in today, we do our job today and we hope tomorrow when we wake up it’s still only two of the Cardinals’ guys and not six to eight.

“And then play and come back tomorrow and play tomorrow and then look up and hopefully it’s the end of September and we’re getting ready for a playoff run.”