Manfred to Clark: The Season is in Jeopardy

In case it wasn’t clear from the fact that six different teams, a full 20% of the league, have already faced cancelations due to positive COVID-19 tests on the Marlins, Phillies, and Cardinals, Rob Manfred put it in plain terms today:

While the specifics of his call with Clark haven’t been made public, the broad strokes are known. If positive tests jump, and particularly if there is another Marlins-like outbreak, the season will likely end. Given that the second round of Cardinals’ testing hasn’t come back, that could happen as soon as Monday.

There’s no sugar coating it: everyone has to do better. Public health officials have confronted the league about players ignoring its own protocols. Watch a game, and you’ll see a hodgepodge of masked and unmasked players, plenty of finger-licking, and about as much spitting as you would see in the pre-pandemic world. It’s fair to say that players also haven’t taken social distancing and self-enforced isolation as seriously as many hoped when the plan for the season went ahead. Passan quotes one high-ranking official as saying, “There are some bad decisions being made.” Meanwhile, Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller reported that Marlins players went out and visited the hotel bar while in Atlanta.

At the same time, the league shoulders the blame to essentially the same extent. Establishing a code of on-field conduct without any good faith effort to enforce it isn’t so different from not establishing new protocols at all. Despite a prolonged stoppage that pushed the sport back from Manfred’s preferred July 4 start date, actual in-stadium plans are still evolving, which absolutely can’t happen. Anthony Rizzo and Don Mattingly have both aired concerns about the lack of planning for social distancing during rain delays, which is something the league shouldn’t have been caught unawares by. As it turns out, rain is a constant in baseball.

This season was never going to be a normal one. To play baseball while a pandemic sweeps the country — I won’t say safely, because no plan can guarantee absolute safety — requires new plans and procedures for the strange moment we live in. One week into the season, it appears that the league and the players have both in large part tried to keep as much as possible unchanged.

The league didn’t have contact-tracing, game-cancelation, and enforcement plans completely finalized. Players are high-fiving and spitting on the field, potentially transmitting a disease spread by droplets and close proximity. There are no crowds in the stands — we’re all painfully aware of that — but that’s simply not enough to protect players, and both sides need to do better.

What does that involve? More enforcement of the actual rules, certainly. I wouldn’t be shocked to see mask-wearing spike after Manfred’s call to Clark, and teams and players can both do a better job self-policing the various close-proximity habits that players have. Players need to exercise far more diligence in keeping themselves safe; the 100-page set of guidelines the league and the Players Association agreed on aren’t just for show.

It also involves a better plan for dealing with positive tests. The league’s fumbling around the Marlins’ outbreak and subsequent cancelations isn’t how a multi-billion dollar industry should handle an event that, while surely not what they hoped for, was hardly outside the realm of possibility. The Marlins played the Phillies after four players had already tested positive for COVID. The league can’t allow missteps like that to happen and expect to continue as normal.

At the end of the day, both sides need to do better. Many players are taking this very seriously, but “many” won’t suffice. Players can’t keep ignoring guidelines for on-field conduct and expect to get away with it. They certainly can’t go out on the town together, as some Marlins reportedly did. And the league needs to come to the table with clear enforcement of the rules, do a better job protecting players in its facilities, and move more quickly to prevent cases from spreading within teams and from one team to the next.

Come Monday, we’ll have more clarity on the Cardinals’ situation. We’ll also likely hear more from the MLBPA as well as from the league. For now, however, this much is clear: unless something changes, it’s hard to imagine a full season being played this year. The missteps and laxity so far have simply been too great.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

i have a question about the infamous marlins group text that led to the, uh, questionable/terrible decision to play the next game . At any point was miguel rojas (their player rep) or anybody from the marlins in touch with the mlbpa about protocol and steps?

3 years ago
Reply to  waka25

I think it’s fair to say, the choice should never have been theirs to make in the first place.

The league’s/PA’s protocols (don’t forget, this part of the plan was done in a joint manner) have clearly been shown to be weak. Teams should be separating players in space and time for as much as possible. You don’t put everyone on a plane together, regardless of social distancing on board. Players should probably be coming and going to stadiums at different times as well.

Are players making mistakes by going out? Yes. That’s the toughest thing NBA players are doing – self isolation for the rest of the season – but we shouldn’t expect players to be more disciplined than society in general. The key here is that, as with any plan, can everyone adapt and move on?

That’s what’s going to be needed, though, if they want to play baseball. Teams need to be much more strict with isolation, and players will need to cooperate and enforce at their level. It’ll be nearly 5x as hard as the NBA (30 teams, 12 man rosters), but it’s doable. The question is…do they *want* to do it?