The structure of the Major League Baseball season is built on a wobbly and shallow foundation. It took just three days for it to begin shaking.
The participants in the 2019 World Series cancelled their workouts Monday. Both the Nationals and Astros are concerned with and irritated by the lag in testing results being returned from the league. They followed league protocol Friday by taking their issued saliva tests. Results are supposed to be ready in 24-48 hours. They were not available Sunday. They were not available Monday. Both organizations shut their workouts down.
Mike Rizzo delivered a pointed statement following the testing failures by the league:
“Per MLB’s protocol, all players and staff were tested for Covid-19 on Friday, July 3rd Seventy-two hours later, we have yet to receive the results of those tests. We cannot have our players and staff work at risk. Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”
Monday morning began with pom-pom waving about the league’s pending schedule release in the evening. A few minutes later, the Nationals announced their decision to pause their workouts. The Astros followed an hour later. The Angels moved their workouts from the morning to the afternoon in hopes their test results would be in beforehand. Nick Markakis opted out of the season in Atlanta after talking to teammate Freddie Freeman, who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Hearing the way he sounded on the phone kind of opened my eyes,” Markakis told reporters. “Freddie didn’t sound good.”
All of this occurred a day after several players wondered out loud about the stability of the season. Some, like David Price and Félix Hernández, wanted to observe what protocols looked like before they made a decision. They chose to leave after seeing the processes.
Sean Doolittle formulated a personal plan -- he and his wife, Eireann, who is high-risk -- will live apart, but close. Doolittle remained unsure three days into the process if he would continue participating while also saying he thought the on-site medical teams were doing everything possible to keep players safe.
“Like a lot of players, [I think] the opt-out provisions are not great,” Doolittle said. “There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s kind of where I am. I think I'm planning on playing, but if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things that we have to worry about and just kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I'll opt out.”
Monday’s news was more potshot than salve for those concerns. The league, yet to respond about the testing lag, received a clear and public jab from two of its most important franchises, though the majority of teams moved forward with their workouts as planned. Players are beginning to talk to each other about the actual risks. And, Monday’s bumps will reboot discussions at home. Expect more players choosing not to play this week. They already don’t trust the league. That lack of trust has been validated with the early botches in testing. It could switch their prior perspective.
The problem also exists within the most important thing: test results. Players who worked out Sunday in Nationals Park didn’t know if they tested positive Friday. But, they were all back to work, operating under all of the team’s mitigation efforts.
If players can’t trust the process, they can’t trust the testing. Then they can’t trust being on the field for two months or more while traveling. Which means they can’t play baseball in 2020.
The only upshot for the league is this happening now. Their window to fix it is tight. They likely don’t have time to shift to on-site, or at least local, testing instead of running everything through their converted lab in Salt Lake City. But, they can issue an apology, outline their course correction, try to restore faith in their system.
What they can’t do is guarantee anything. Those involved knew that all along. The questions existed around what they were willing to accept. A lag in testing is on the list of things they cannot.
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