Opinion: As MLB tiptoes around coronavirus, walls are closing in on 'mess' of a season
This 2020 baseball season is wobbling, a home built on an iffy foundation, with two walls gradually closing in that might inspire the occupants to flee before it collapses.
On one side: The constant specter of COVID-19 itself, which ravaged the majority of the Miami Marlins’ roster, threatens to do the same to the St. Louis Cardinals and constantly weighs on the minds of athletes and personnel.
On the other side: The actual baseball piece of it, where mitigating the virus compromises what in simpler times we might have called “the integrity of the game.”
That desire for integrity is now superseded by a simple desire: Play nine (or fewer) innings and get the hell out of there and into bed as soon as possible.
Just consider all the collective shrugs and pursed lips the game has endured in two weeks:
Boot the Blue Jays out of Canada and send them on the road the whole year? Whatever.
A runner placed on second base in extra-inning games? Sure.
“Home” teams playing in their opponents’ stadium? Why not.
Seven-inning doubleheaders, as if this is a glorified junior-college tournament rather than the highest level of baseball on the globe? Do what you gotta do.
Call in the baseball equivalent of the cavalry by signing players off the street and tapping deeply into your “Alternate Training Site” to field a team? Hey, next man up.
Determining playoff spots by winning percentage, even if one team plays closer to 50 games while another plays 60? October waits for nobody.
Spend almost all of your pregame preparation not on spray charts or batting practice or video analys, but rather testing more than 100 player and club personnel after an infected team came through your stadium?
As the players often say, it’s just a part of it.
That final scenario played out Friday, after two St. Louis Cardinals players tested positive for COVID-19 days after playing games at Minneapolis’ Target Field. The Twins and Cleveland Indians had already played a game there in the interim, but after the Marlins’ coronavirus firestorm in Philadelphia – 21 players and personnel testing positive, plus two Phillies staffers – nothing was left to chance.
And rightfully so. With that in mind, Target Field was turned into a veritable walk-in clinic, the Twins popping up all hours of the day to get tested, some of them still awaiting the point-of-care nasal swab less than three hours before first pitch.
“We’re not going to be able to do much, baseball-wise, before the game today,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Let’s pause our COVID-19 mindset for just a second and ponder that. The Twins and Indians finished 1-2 in the AL Central last season and, to the extent these things can be forecast, were expected to battle in a similar fashion in this 60-game season.
With barely 50 games left in this season, it’s what one might call a big series. And yet 113 pages of protocols still can’t insulate two teams who, by all appearances, have done everything right in tip-toeing around this pandemic.
“It is something that is not lost on us,” Baldelli said before his team beat the Indians 4-1. “It has been an unusual day. There’s still guys waiting outside to get tested.
“These are the realities our guys have been living with. They know it. They’ve taken everything pretty well and I’m sure this won’t be different.”
And this was before at least five additional Cardinals players and staff tested positive, once again postponing their series opener at Milwaukee and, likely, the entire series.
That would push to 15 the number of makeup games needed in a season that was already compressed into just 66 days.
It has been striking to hear the tones of trepidation from typically hardened players and managers and executives, only to see them flip a switch and compete at a world-class level minutes later.
Yet, how much longer can they keep that up? How much more can the walls close in?
Ultimately, the now 17 players who opted out of the season may look like visionaries; Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz joined that group Saturday with a heart-wrenching post.
Dodgers starter David Price couldn’t help but chirp from the safety of Opt-out Land when the Marlins outbreak occurred, and surely there were active players nodding along with him.
Stephen Strasburg, who will remain World Series MVP until the game can safely stage another Fall Classic, raised eyebrows but also had it right when explaining why pitching through a nerve issue in his throwing hand did not make sense in 2020.
“To be frank, this season is kind of a mess to begin with, so I got to think big picture here,” Strasburg said after he was scratched from the Washington Nationals' second game. “It’s my career.
“I know that in the long run it’s important to try to make as many starts as you can, and by putting yourself in a compromising position now, I don’t really know if it’s the best way moving forward.”
It’s hard to imagine it not getting any weirder, any uglier. It took just 10 days before Major League Baseball kick-started the blame game, admonishing the Marlins for breaking protocols, as if it could definitively trace the outbreak to a lobby bar or a nightclub and not from the team coming from one of the most coronavirus-soaked counties in the country.
We'll see what explanation emerges for the Cardinals' apparent outbreak.
Besides, it wasn’t the Marlins' players who scheduled a foolhardy pit stop in Atlanta to play a pair of utterly meaningless exhibition games. Sure, they voted to play the Phillies when an outbreak was raging in their clubhouse, but that shouldn’t be their call to make.
There were no clearly-stated protocols for when to call a game off, as Twins GM Derek Falvey confirmed Friday. That lesson has been learned the hard way, and we imagine both teams and the league will move far more aggressively to halt play going forward.
The Marlins are still left to cobble together a team. Friday night, the Baltimore Orioles traded one of their more reliable relievers, lefty Richard Bleier, to Miami. How does it feel to get traded to a team that reportedly chartered busses to transport its infected staff from Philly to Miami?
“Hopefully, everything’s under control,” Bleier told reporters after his final game as an Oriole. “I’m going into a situation that’s unsafe. It’s definitely something I’m aware of, but I’m not overly concerned. They’re not going to bring me somewhere there’s going to be a problem.”
You’d think not.
Lessons are being learned, and protocols doubled-down on, and ostensibly things should run more smoothly. There are still 52 to 57 games remaining, depending on how deftly your team has ducked the virus.
After considering all that’s been compromised just to get eight games in, it’s hard to imagine what the game might look like after 52 more.
Particularly if the walls, ever so gradually, keep closing in.