More Coronavirus Infections on Marlins, Phillies, and Now Cardinals Mean More Scrambling — and More Questions — for MLB

The impact of the Marlins’ outbreak of coronavirus and Sunday’s ill-fated decision to allow the team to play the Phillies continues to resonate throughout major league baseball. Both teams have now reported more positive tests within their organizations, and more games have been postponed, causing a ripple effect within the schedule. Meanwhile, the league is reportedly upgrading its protocols, has launched an investigation into the outbreak, and has reached an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association to reduce doubleheader games to seven innings apiece, just as the necessity for such twin bills appears to be increasing by the day as the postponements mount.

How necessary? On Friday morning, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the night’s game between the Cardinals and Brewers — neither of which team has crossed paths with the Marlins or Phillies — has been postponed as well due to multiple positive tests on the Cardinals. Sportsgrid’s Craig Mish followed up with a report that it’s two players infected. The team has been instructed to self-isolate. In other words, a new front in MLB’s battle to forge ahead has opened up.

Folks, it’s going great.

Since publishing my latest update on the subject on Wednesday morning, three additional Marlins players, all as yet unidentified, have tested positive, bringing the team’s total to 18 players and two coaches. The majority of those players are unidentified, but among those reported to be infected are catcher Jorge Alfaro, first baseman Garrett Cooper, shortstop Miguel Rojas, right fielder Harold Ramirez, and starters Sandy Alcantara and José Ureña. ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reports that the infected players and other personnel will be driven back to Miami on sleeper buses, while the rest will continue on their road trip.

As for the Phillies, none of their players has tested positive thus far, but a visiting clubhouse staffer did so over the weekend, and on Thursday, multiple outlets reported that one coach and a home clubhouse staffer both tested positive as well. In the wake of that news, the Phillies not only canceled workouts at Citizens Bank Park, but canceled all activity at the ballpark until further notice, and players have been told to isolate while they await more daily testing and results. Obviously, this is worrisome, not only because it could mean more infections on the way but because an outbreak crossing from one team to another is a nightmare scenario, even if it’s not specifically commissioner Rob Manfred’s nightmare scenario.

MLB had already postponed the Phillies’ home-and-home series against the Yankees this week, and has now postponed the team’s entire weekend series against the Blue Jays — a series it had already revisited twice since the schedule was originally announced, first to have the Phillies play as the visiting team because the Blue Jays’ temporary new home, Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, is still being upgraded to comply with the particulars of MLB’s 2020 standards, and then to move Friday’s game to part of a Saturday doubleheader, presumably to allow for one more day of testing.

Officially, the Phillies’ next scheduled game also happens to be the Marlins’ next scheduled game, since the latter’s weekday home-and-home series with the Orioles and weekend series with the Nationals were already canceled. On August 4, the two teams are supposed to play a three-game set in Miami. However, on Tuesday MLB said via a statement that additional rescheduling for the week of August 3rd would be announced later this week. MLB has already shown flexibility with regards to rescheduling games, and teams have shown a willingness to go along with the program; rather than let both the Yankees and Orioles idle in place while their opponents were shut down, MLB paired the teams for a two-game series in Baltimore — games that were originally scheduled to be played on August 3-4 — on Wednesday and Thursday. The opening of those dates, and the pending announcement of more rescheduling, may have to do with the Yankees and Phillies making up this week’s games, a possibility floated by the Washington Post’s Dave Shenin on Tuesday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone was working under that impression as well:

Though they don’t extend to the active roster, the Phillies’ positive tests may force the postponement of their meeting with the Yankees even before it’s officially announced. Meanwhile, it may be the case that the Marlins remain on hiatus beyond Tuesday. All of which is to say that the schedule is still in flux. Good thing nobody needs to worry about tickets this year, right?

Leaving aside the possibility of further rescheduling beyond Tuesday, the Marlins and Phillies will have both gone at least eight days without playing, all but eliminating the likelihood that they will make up every postponed game; the math says that even if the league were to reschedule both teams to play on Monday, August 3, each would have 56 days to play 57 games, and there’s no way that the players’ union will let that fly. While not official yet, it sounds as though the league is prepared to accept the possibility of teams playing differing totals of games, in which case playoff spots would be decided by winning percentages, as was the case in the strike-shortened 1972 and ’81 division races.

That said, the new rule for seven-inning games for doubleheaders appears to be MLB’s attempt to minimize that possibility. As with the man-on-second extra innings rule, MLB has once again taken a page from the minor leagues in a manner almost certain to enrage purists and invite ridicule; thankfully, both changes are in place only for 2020. The doubleheader rule is an attempt to protect pitchers, expedite games, minimize the time at the ballpark for players and staff, and allow for the possibility that postponements may create a frequent need to play two games in one day. Through Wednesday, the average game time this year was three hours and nine minutes. At that pace, a seven-inning game would be 42 minutes shorter; multiply it by two, and the savings approach an hour and a half.

While this doesn’t seem like he most urgent matter at the moment, Angels manager Joe Maddon told the Associated Press that he could see the potential utility with the new rule: “Right now, I don’t think it’s necessary based on how this season has been set up. If the doubleheaders were to pile up for whatever reason, I would have it like in a contingency plan.”

The Athletic’s Britt Ghiroli reported on Wednesday that the players’ union was surveying its members about the possibility either of playing two such games for a doubleheader or simply shortening the second game to seven innings. Concurrently, the league checked opinions on the matter among owners and general managers, and in marked contrast to so many other negotiations between the two sides lately, the decision came together very quickly, and will go into effect as of August 1. A doubleheader between the Indians and White Sox, played in order to make up a rainout from the day before, took place on Tuesday under standard nine-inning rules.

Off the field, MLB is updating its protocols in the wake of the Marlins’ mess, a possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred suggested in his interview with MLB Network on Monday. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Manfred sent a memo to teams on Tuesday that includes mandates that players and staff wear surgical masks instead of cloth masks while traveling, and that each team travel with a compliance officer who will ensure that players and staff properly follow the league’s protocol. It’s unclear yet who will fulfill that role — a team executive or athletic trainer, or somebody from the league office — or how it differs from the previously created role of infection control prevention coordinator, a position described in MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual as an existing staff member “who will monitor and ensure compliance with MLB-mandated health and safety protocols.”

Regardless, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun for the compliance officer, who would theoretically be charged with policing the spitting and high-fiving that has taken place despite the league’s directives, as well as working to ensure the wearing of masks and maintenance of social distancing. According to Passan, this person’s duties will include submitting reports, monitoring hotels, and arranging seating charts on buses to ensure the maintenance of social distancing rules, perhaps separating teammates likely to break them. The officer will be credentialed as Tier 1, as are players, managers, coaches and training staff; that status allows them access to restricted areas.

Manfred’s memo does not mandate a quarantine for teams that are on the road, but it does discourage players and staff from venturing outside hotels except to travel to games, and even from gathering in common areas of the hotel. Passan wrote that the protocols could be further strengthened in the coming days.

Back to the Marlins, the outbreak has fueled numerous rumors as to its origin, none of which have been substantiated. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that the league has launched an investigation into the situation, not for punitive purposes but “with the aim of reinforcing better practices specifically with this team and learning what can be done to prevent a repeat elsewhere.” A league official told Sherman, “Something happened massively disruptive to the process that is not going on anywhere else.” More:

There is concentration currently on whether there were infected personnel on the Marlins’ charter last Tuesday from Miami to Atlanta, and whether protocol to avoid crowded public places while on the road was violated by members of the Marlins’ traveling party after a Tuesday night exhibition game against the Braves.

While MLB appears to be making an effort to understand how the outbreak happened, questions still linger as to how Sunday’s decision to play unfolded. “Nobody from Major League Baseball or the Marlins has publicly provided detailed answers about the behind-the-scenes decisions or protocols that led the league to determine it was safe to play Sunday, wrote The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro and Jayson Stark. An epidemiologist working in professional sports (unidentified because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly) told The Athletic that the league’s protocols raise serious questions about how communications should be handled for similar situations, and that the decision to play can’t be left up to players, as it apparently was for the Marlins. “There has to be some medical intervention,” said the epidemiologist. “There has to be someone who can say, ‘This is what we have,’ and can say, ‘We need to stop it here.’” The epidemiologist suggested that if one or two teams needed to be shut down and quarantined for 10 to 14 days, then that should be the case for the entire sport, for the sake of safety and competitive integrity.

The league’s course of action regarding the Cardinals, who played the Twins on Tuesday and Wednesday, may indicate what kind of lessons have been learned from the Marlins-Phillies debacle. It counts as progress that Friday’s game was postponed before the team even reported to Miller Park. Then again, the speed with which MLB seems to want to move on may raise eyebrows:

Presumably if additional positive tests arise, the rescheduled games will also be in jeopardy. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold, “traditional” in this context means that the second game will start soon after the first one ends, as opposed to being a day-night doubleheader. The games are scheduled to be seven innings long, according to an official source. MLB officially announced the new rule on Friday afternoon.

This is a developing story, and it’s fair to wonder how different the outlook for continuing the 2020 season will look by the end of this coming weekend — or even the end of Friday. Suffice it to say that a league with 20% of its teams out of action on a given day due to the coronavirus probably isn’t sustainable.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

Yeah, this is all seeming like a worse and worse idea. It’s yet to be seen how successful/sustainable the NBA’s and NHL’s respective bubble plans are, but it is clear already, only about a week in, that MLB’s plan was not and is not a good one (which also calls into serious questions the NFL’s insistence on a “normal” season as well). I know everyone here loves baseball, and I’ll admit to enjoying it even in the midst of everything Jay describes in the article, but I think we’ve already blown far past the point of acceptable player safety risk-entertainment reward tradeoff, and it’s gotta be time to shut it down, at least for a few weeks. Of course, as long as the owners are still on track to make their hundreds of millions for the year then I guess all other concerns are moot.

2 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

It is possible that a greater number of players would have contracted the virus if they were not playing and just hanging out at home. A large percentage had the virus when they showed up. Assuming they tested 1800 players and those with positives (X) contracted within the last 30 days, you would take (X)(7/30) to determine the minimum number of players who would have likely contracted back home in the last seven days. Of course there are a lot of other variables, i.e., were guys practicing together to get ready, are local numbers rising or declining, etc.. But its not like 0 players would have contracted the virus in the last week if they never started the season. I would imagine just based on how 20-30 year old males are behaving during this pandemic it is possible the number would be higher if they were still home.

Nonetheless, that is not exactly how workplace safety is calculated. OSHA could care less how many home owners fall off of their roofs.

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

So you are against all non-essential businesses being open I assume then? Because that’s the only way you can say the above and be logically consistent

2 years ago

I am against all non-essential businesses being open in such a way that needlessly endangers people (for instance restaurants being open at 100% capacity, or the company I work for insisting on keeping its office open against state orders when all employees are provided laptops and are more than capable of working from home). In MLB’s case, it seems like a bubble would have been a better solution. Or at least some plan beyond “meh, let’s just do everything we normally would… except no fans, that’ll fix it” and only half-enforcing whatever meager protocols they did come up with. I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but at this rate it’s only a matter of time until a player or team employee dies or develops serious health complications as a direct result of MLB continuing operations. And again, as much as we all like baseball, I’m not willing to literally sacrifice human beings in the name of some nice evening entertainment (and further fattening 30 or so already full-to-bursting wallets).

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

“I’m not willing to literally sacrifice human beings”

See, this is where I would beg to differ on this characterization. The math would indicate that the odds of a player dying from coronavirus this season (and let’s just assume that they got coronavirus *because* they were playing baseball in the first place) are next to nothing. To put this in perspective, Cirque Du Soleil has had two people die for our nice evening entertainment, should it have been shut down? The NFL has had a player die on the field, was one death for our entertainment too many? And the math would say that MLB will still finish behind them by the end of the season in ‘human sacrifices for our entertainment’!

And remember, we are not marching these people out at gunpoint and telling them to play baseball. By all means, they should be doing their best to prevent people from getting the disease, and the Marlins’ playing after positive results started coming out is inexcusable (though it is, in fact, partially the players’ fault that happened). But they are getting paid, they had input into and accepted the health protocols, and they can opt out.

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago

The point I’m making is that society isn’t having an intelligent discussion on the coronavirus question. In every walk of life, we have reconciled ourselves with tradeoffs between risks and benefits, yet it’s apparently become distasteful to have that conversation about coronavirus. We’ve divided ourselves into “reopen and come what may!” and “no risk is small enough!”, which is why we can’t have, for example, a meaningful public discourse on reopening schools. There are no perfect answers, and we won’t even get to *good* answers unless we are frank with each other about exactly what risks are involved in an activity and what risks are involved by not allowing that activity. Instead, one feels like, if you bring up the notion that coronavirus needs to be talked about in terms tied to reality and supported by the numbers, there is instantly a crowd chanting “burn the heretic!”.

The risks to baseball players, and the public, of engaging in baseball during the outbreak are lower than (1) the risks of many other activities we happily are allowing during the pandemic and (2) the risks of many other activities we comfortably accept, pandemic or not. In that context,I just can’t get too worked up about baseball continuing.

2 years ago

I appreciate your nuanced opinion and think you have some valid points.

2 years ago

You raise a lot of good points and I’m afraid you’re correct about the two camps. Anymore I play “guess the narrative”- it usually happens in the first sentence or two. I also try to look deeper and read comments throughly beyond the narrative, but it is alarming how thought has become tribal.
I’d ask the bubble advocates to think back to their original reaction to the Arizona and Florida proposals, remember how the MLBPA reacted, then when the outbreaks shifted to Az and Fla. Some people have managed to get on three sides of this issue.
That MLB allowed Miami to play last Sunday was an incredibly stupid breech or lack of enforcement. But lets not forget the players have been incredibly irresponsible- which is said because they should have known better… Having three kids in college, I’m reminded young people view themselves as invincible, but these players have coaches who are much more at risk for serious COVID outcomes.

Original Greaser Bob
2 years ago

Despite what people may think risk isn’t shared equally over the population. Isolate older coaches, staff, and those with preexisting conditions. Play ball.

We never quit working and I live in the Chicago metropolitan area.

2 years ago

You join Cirque knowing the risks that come from falling off the trapeze, or whatever.

Comparing that to a wickedly contagious virus is intensely illogical.

2 years ago

That’s a whole pile of bad takes.

First, Cirque du Soleil was shut down each time after there was a death in both 2013 and 2018. This happened even though failed acrobatic moves are not contagious! Find a better comparison.

Second, death is not the only negative outcome from Covid-19. Cardiomyopathy, like that now experienced by Eduardo Rodriguez, is a common effect, even among young adults. Long-term heart damage won’t show up until he’s maybe in his 50s. For other young and healthy people, mini-strokes, blood clots and permanent lung scars have occurred.

Third, the deaths could include the housecleaner at the hotel, the server handing them takeout, or their parents who live in the same household because they can’t afford to live in separate homes. These people have to work to survive.

Society can’t stop everything but travelling groups of 60 people who spend a lot of time in close proximity damn well better take all precautions.

2 years ago
Reply to  dbminn

Do you have data on other negative outcomes? Else, it’s just anecdotes. On cases in CA, here’s how many result in deaths by age:
<=17: ~45,600 cases, 0 deaths, 0%
18-34: 177,177 cases, 132 deaths, 0.0745%
35-49: 125,562 cases, 517 deaths, 0.4%
50-59: 70,453 cases, 901 deaths, 1.3%
60-64: 25,439 cases, 693 deaths, 2.8%
65-69: 17,603 cases, 884 deaths, 5%

If CA's results are similar for the rest of the nation, schools should open, obese teachers above 49 should probably opt out and obese ones above 35 should think about it, and MLB players don't have much to worry about.

Should we salute the Marlins Players for putting themselves at risk to support the Strip Club industry or what?

Joe Joemember
2 years ago

Most non-essential businesses don’t make billions of dollars, such that they have the operating revenue such that they can be operated in a way that might be safer than having the majority of their workers at home. So it easy to be logically consistent.

That said, MLB is not operating in a manner to keep players safe. Players are not social distancing or wearing masks while on camera. I expect it is much worse when cameras aren’t there. I thought teams would enforce precaution as I expected MLB was going to make teams play with their reserve rosters if they got infected…but then, some teams just don’t have the incentive to win.

2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

The other day I finally got a chance to catch my first game, and the UMPIRE was walking right up to people without a mask. It was just sitting there around his neck. Fortunately everyone else wore it when they approached someone who wasn’t part of their team but seriously, way to set an example.

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

This part I agree with – if MLB is going to be operating, it needs to be taking reasonable precautions, and there certainly seem to have been balls dropped on that front.