ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball was so concerned with safety protocols that its 101-page operations manual specifies how long batting practice balls must be kept out of circulation — five days, if you’re wondering — after being used and disinfected.
There were rules for the use of rosin bags on the field, restrictions on the type of hotel room coffee cups and the distribution of oral thermometers for players to take home.
It was quite the impressive document covering almost every eventuality except for this: How to handle a COVID-19 outbreak.
Yes, three days into the 2020 season, MLB appears completely unprepared to handle a quick-spreading outbreak in the Miami clubhouse. The Marlins had 11 players and three staff members test positive during the weekend, leading to the postponement of Monday and Tuesday games against the Orioles.
Despite the quick spread, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday evening that the Marlins could be back on the field for a game in Baltimore as soon as Wednesday, depending on subsequent tests.
“This is absolutely insane,” epidemiologist and Emory University assistant professor Zachary Binney tweeted. “If possible, the literal stupidest possible plan. You have a raging outbreak, anyone in the Marlins traveling party could be infected regardless of how their tests come back. So by all means, just bring that on the road to Baltimore!”
The problem here is timing. And this is what seems to have been ignored in MLB’s manual.
As devastating as it can be, the coronavirus can take its time once a person is infected. The CDC cautions on its website that a negative test does not necessarily mean a person has not been infected — it just might take a few more days to show up.
And that’s the danger of putting the Marlins back on the field so quickly. For that matter, MLB may have put the Rays at risk on Monday night.
Less than a week ago, the Braves played a two-game exhibition series against the Marlins in Atlanta. While the Braves have given no indication that any players have tested positive since then, there is still the possibility the virus is incubating. Two Braves catchers (including former Ray Travis d’Arnaud) remained in Atlanta with cold-like symptoms, but have not tested positive for the coronavirus.
Rays players said they were not overly concerned about playing the Braves, but acknowledged the Miami news was unsettling.
“(The Braves) would know if they had any positives from the last test they took,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “Yes, there’s concern each and every day, no matter what. There’s no doubt about that. At the same time, you try not to let these things distract you from what we’re trying to accomplish as a team. Health is obviously a lot more important than what we’re doing out there on the field, but we have the confidence and trust that everyone on the opposition is safe as of now, and I hope I’m right when I say that.”
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There is an issue here that MLB has been skirting for months. For all of the minutiae in their operating manual, baseball officials did not want to specify how many positive tests were too many, and they did not outline what would happen in the case of possible exposures.
The Phillies, for instance, just spent three days playing against the Marlins. They postponed their game against the Yankees on Monday night, but how long will they be quarantined? If they’re allowed back on the field after a single negative test, they are now running the risk of infecting the Yankees, too.
“You get slapped in the face with the reality of this thing,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said at Tropicana Field on Monday. “You can’t let your guard down.”
What MLB needs to realize is that it should be playing for the long haul. The season has already been permanently disrupted by the virus, so cancelling a handful of games in late July is better than running the risk of shutting down the entire season before October.
Rays players spent Monday afternoon in a team meeting with general manager Erik Neander, trainer Joe Benge and logistics director Chris Westmoreland going over all of the safety protocols for their road trip, which begins Wednesday.
Where are the Rays going? They’ll follow the Marlins to Atlanta and Baltimore.
“It’s been talked about in our clubhouse between players,” Kiermaier said. “I’m sure everything is being disinfected right now, and probably several times before we arrive there. It’s definitely thought and I’m sure it will be talked about more. You just hope to have the trust in the staff (in Atlanta), the people sanitizing things trying to make it the safest place possible.
“This coronavirus stuff, when you think trends are going a certain way, things like this pop up.”