MLB’s Testing Mess May KO Season by Jay Jaffe July 7, 2020 On Saturday, the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka got hit upside the head and ultimately concussed by a 112-mph screamer off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, the third player he faced in the team’s first simulated game of summer camp. By Monday, a good portion of Major League Baseball could identify with the headaches and other scary consequences of being knocked down so soon after restarting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The testing program that represents a foundational piece of the protocol to keep players and essential staff safe broke down, causing teams to delay or cancel workouts and amplifying a crisis of confidence within the sport. Indeed, if one didn’t already feel a fair bit of ambivalence regarding MLB’s attempt to stage even an abbreviated season amid the pandemic, the dysfunction that’s been on display since late last week has certainly provided cause for concern. While the league reported results of its intake tests that initially appeared promising, the caveat attached — incomplete results from most teams — was enough to raise some eyebrows. Beyond that initial stumble, Monday brought news of at least half a dozen teams whose workouts were delayed or canceled due to holiday-related holdups in receiving test results, a matter that should have been anticipated well in advance. All of this comes while the ranks of players testing positive and those opting out both continue to grow, producing absences that could potentially reshape the season and in some cases have life-altering consequences. And of course, this is all unfolding (unraveling?) against the backdrop of record-setting numbers of new cases in the U.S. with totals topping 50,000 for three consecutive days. Should MLB attempt to proceed at all? Can it? From here, the likelihood of the league pulling this off seems more remote than ever. Though it was overshadowed by the rancorous and all-too-public exchanges between the owners and the Players Association, MLB sold the union and the public on the viability of a restart based on its ability to expedite a high volume of tests, primarily via saliva-based tests — faster and less invasive than nasal swabs — that a repurposed anti-doping lab in Salt Lake City could process for a 24- to 48-hour turnaround. Even before that turnaround time could be called into question, MLB made a mess of its intake testing, which began at players’ home stadiums on July 1. Players and essential staff were given temperature checks, saliva or nasal swab diagnostic tests for the coronavirus itself, and antibody tests using blood samples. Only those who tested negative were permitted to enter facilities for the first workouts beginning on Friday. On Friday, MLB and the Players Association announced the results of those intake tests: 38 total positives (31 from players, seven from staff) out of 3,185 samples collected and tested, a 1.2% rate — on par with the moving seven-day average for New York state according to data from Johns Hopkins University (1.1%), less than one-sixth of the national seven-day average (7.5%), and an order of magnitude below the nightmarish scenarios unfolding in Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Eleven of the 30 teams didn’t have a single positive case. According to Oxford College of Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney, the estimated 1.7% infection rate for players (as opposed to 0.5% for staff) was significantly below the initial intake tests of both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League: How do these initial rounds of +s compare to other leagues? Players:MLB – 1.7% or higher (no exact denominator)NBA – 5.3%NHL – 5.5% Staff:MLB – 0.5% or lowerNBA – 1.1% (after multiple rounds over 1 week, so biased up vs. MLB, but probably still truly higher) (2/) — Zachary Binney, PhD (@zbinney_NFLinj) July 3, 2020 It all sounded like good news, comparatively speaking — any positive test is cause for alarm, given the potentially life-threatening nature of the virus — but it came with a couple qualifiers that weren’t widely noted. The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli reported that “a vast majority of teams had incomplete or pending results. They were not able to submit those to the league by the deadline.” On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported, “At least 10 teams had not finished their intake testing by the time MLB and the PA released the numbers. At least nine teams still had not finished it on Sunday.” Ghiroli also noted that the numbers did not include the players who were confirmed to have tested positive prior to intake, including those affected by the outbreaks in the camps of the Blue Jays, Giants, Phillies, Rangers, and Rockies that were reported about two weeks ago. As of Monday, MLB still hadn’t produced final results; in a statement issued late on Monday — more on which below — the league said that “more than 95% of the tests under the Intake Screening period have been conducted, analyzed and shared with all 30 Clubs,” and that 98% of the new total of 3,740 samples had been processed. The statement did not include an updated rate of positive tests, however, but given those exclusions, it’s possible that the actual number of players and staff infected is at least double what’s been reported. If this process is to gain the trust of the players and the public, such data has to be circulated. The league and the union have to make transparency a priority, and should be able to do so without sacrificing individual player privacy. MLB’s statement also attempted to address the snafus that occurred over the holiday weekend, which were plentiful: On Sunday, the A’s were forced to cancel the workout for their position players because their intake results were incomplete. Via The Athletic’s Alex Coffey: As of late Sunday night, the COVID-19 tests for the A’s position players were in San Francisco, waiting to be shipped to Major League Baseball’s lab in Salt Lake City. The tests were due to arrive in Utah at 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning. Per MLB’s health and safety protocols, in order to enter the A’s facility, all personnel and players must test negative. The team believes the earliest it could hold a full-team workout would be Monday evening. A’s general manager David Forst was described as “livid” about the delayed results, which could push back the start of full-squad A’s workouts beyond Monday. In a text message to reporters on Sunday, Forst said that the delay was “due to the holiday yesterday.” But it is unclear what the root of this delay actually is. According to this source, MLB had known of the A’s workout and testing schedule a week ago and never alerted the team about potential issues or delays that would be caused by the July 4 holiday. The A’s were initially forced to cancel Monday’s workout as well, no small matter in a preseason that’s just 23 days long, though they were able to get a position player workout in Monday evening. On Monday, the Astros, Cardinals, and Nationals found themselves in a similar boat as the A’s, canceling workouts because they hadn’t received the results of tests conducted on Friday. The Diamondbacks had to delay theirs for the same reason, though they did finally get one in. The Angels, whose testers did not show up on Sunday to either Angel Stadium or Long Beach State’s Blair Field, the team’s alternate training site, had staff collect their saliva samples for testing and downshifted to an optional afternoon workout. The Astros weren’t tested on Saturday or Sunday. The Yankees weren’t tested on Sunday, but they collected their samples, then chose to proceed. Yeesh. On Sunday, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle articulated the concerns of many players. Via Ghiroli, he said during a Zoom interview, “This has to get fixed… There is a lot of players right now that are 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 where I am.” During the interview, Doolittle checked his phone to see if his test results from Friday had come in; they had not. The pitcher also said that the team had not received its personal protective equipment, including N95 masks and gloves. On Monday, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo issued a blunt statement about the testing situation regarding not only his team, but the entire league: #Nationals cancel workout today and GM Mike Rizzo does not obfuscate why. pic.twitter.com/nio0rNANC7 — Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) July 6, 2020 Commissioner Rob Manfred, apparently eager to find the wrong side of the issue, “jumped on” Rizzo for insubordination, according to the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga. In its statement, MLB offered an explanation for the delays: Our plan required extensive delivery and shipping services, including proactive special accommodations to account for the holiday weekend. The vast majority of those deliveries occurred without incident and allowed the protocols to function as planned. Unfortunately, several situations included unforeseen delays. We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence. We commend the affected Clubs that responded properly by cancelling workouts. It beggars belief that MLB couldn’t foresee the problems related to transporting samples on a holiday weekend that for months has been within the window of the restart effort — and yet here they are. As the New York Post’s Joel Sherman elaborated, FedEx normally handles the transportation of test samples and has its own fleet of aircraft, but the league had to turn to its backup courier, which does not, and which had to make do with a limited number of commercial flights on the holiday weekend. Additionally, the league and the lab had a backlog that included both intake testing and the beginning of every-other-day testing. The fact that players and staff are only being tested every other day has drawn criticism from epidemiologists and other public health experts, including Binney, who called the plan “flimsy” and compared it to a below-average shortstop who “is going to miss some grounders.” A greater focus on the health and safety protocol during the negotiations might have produced a stronger plan, as Doolittle and other players have suggested, with multiple labs available to process more frequent tests; The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the union and MLB are in fact seeking to add a lab “to increase the speed and efficiency of test processing and reporting.” Whatever system is in place needs to run like a Swiss watch if MLB is to have a shot at completing its season, and right now, one can’t blame the players for being openly skeptical, particularly given that the situation has become a mess even before teams have gone on the road. As the Cubs’ Kris Bryant told reporters via Zoom: “We’ve had guys here that showed up on Sunday and haven’t gotten tested again eight, seven days later. And then you don’t get the results for two days either, so that’s nine days without knowing. I think if you really want this to succeed, we’re going to have to figure this out. I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe and I would feel comfortable. But honestly I don’t really feel that way, which is why I’m trying to keep my distance from everybody and wear my mask, just so that we can get this thing going. “When you get into the season and you’re traveling and you’re in an airplane, a hotel, you’re getting room service, who knows what people are doing? Especially on the other teams, too. You got to rely on everybody in this whole thing. If you can’t really nail the easy part — which is right now and just our players — we’ve got a big hill to climb.” Said the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, “[I]t’s tough to be confident in something that hasn’t proved to be foolproof.” Said the A’s Jake Diekman, an at-risk player due to his history of ulcerative colitis, “I feel like deep down, every player has it in the back of their mind that this is all going to fall apart.” Unless the league and the union can iron out the process in short order, it’s entirely possible that players who have already expressed ambivalence about proceeding, from Mike Trout and Buster Posey on down, could join David Price, Ian Desmond, and others in opting out. If enough marquee players do so, it could undermine MLB’s attempt to preserve the competitive integrity of the season, not that a 60-game schedule doesn’t do so by definition. None of this will surprise the chorus of people saying that baseball shouldn’t even attempt to proceed, and it probably shouldn’t do so for those of us who have at least been willing to suspend disbelief and see how the process unfolds. But unlike Tanaka, nobody should be blindsided by the risks involved in this attempt to play, or the speed with which the consequences of a mishap can cause serious damage. MLB needs to tighten things up immediately, or the 2020 season is going to fall apart completely.