MLB knew it was taking a risk by declining to restart its season in a bubble environment with two or three hub cities, as the NBA is doing in Orlando and the NHL is doing in Toronto and Edmonton.
The plan was considered too unwieldy, many players didn’t want to be apart from their families for months, and the summer heat in Arizona, Florida and Texas was considered too oppressive to play outdoors.
So the league instead went with the option of having teams play in their own ballparks, limiting travel with regional schedules and instituting an extensive list of health and safety protocols to try and prevent players and staff from contracting COVID-19.
Everyone knew going in that nothing was guaranteed, but they hoped for the best and got through 3 1/2 weeks of summer camp with relatively few positive tests.
“We’re all a little nervous,” Chicago Cubs starter Jon Lester said during camp. “Nobody wants to get this thing. I think you have to believe in the testing process. You have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here.”
Lester then held up his mask and added: “You have to believe in these things.”
But one weekend into the 60-game baseball season, players’ worst fears have been realized.
A severe outbreak among Miami Marlins players and staff in Philadelphia already has affected four teams, with Monday’s Marlins-Baltimore Orioles game in Miami cancelled along with the New York Yankees-Philadelphia Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park.
Fourteen members of the Marlins – including 11 players – tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports, forcing the team to stay in Philadelphia Sunday night instead of flying home to Miami. The Phillies’ ballpark was undergoing a deep cleaning as well.
MLB released a statement Monday announcing the postponements were made so the league could conduct additional COVID-19 testing.
The news came as the Cubs and White Sox both were hitting the road for the first time. The Cubs are traveling to Cincinnati Monday, and the Sox are headed to Cleveland. Teams traditionally traveled into towns the night before the series began, but have changed travel plans this year to avoid staying an extra night in a hotel.
The White Sox are moving into a clubhouse at Progressive Field used by the Kansas City Royals last weekend, while the Cubs are moving into a clubhouse used by the Detroit Tigers at Great American Ball Park.
Reds infielder Matt Davidson tested positive Saturday, and infielder Mike Moustakas was placed on injured list Sunday without an injury designation. Outfielder Nick Senzel also was scratched from the Reds lineup and manager David Bell did not report to the ballpark after waking up and feeling sick.
“Those are the moments we talk about in taking care of yourself,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Sunday. “You know it’s going to happen at some time or another. It’s unfortunate and myself, a Tier 1 guy (with the highest team access) who’s been through a lot, when I started hearing that I get nervous. I really do. I can honestly tell you that. I start thinking about it awful hard ...
“There’s protocols for every one of them. You just hope it doesn’t come into your clubhouse.”
Cubs players talked with each other Sunday about the Marlins’ situation, and also knew about Davidson testing positive.
“It’s definitely something to be concerned about, if a (Reds) clubhouse guy went over to their (visiting) locker room, things like that, making sure that the locker room is deep cleaned,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We’re definitely going to be paying attention to the Tigers now, to see if a couple guys pop up positive. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I’m sure MLB and the Reds will do everything they need to do to make us feel safe there.”
Lester is scheduled to make his season debut tonight against the Reds. He and Rizzo both are cancer survivors, but chose to play this season instead of opting-out, as players with health risks have the option of doing. Lester acknowledged players are putting themselves “out there and just kind of hoping” things turn out OK.
Lester said he didn’t consider opting out.
“I think you just have to kind of dive into this head first and go with the protocols, wash your hands and be careful,” he said.
Cubs and Sox players, like most teams, have been virtually isolated in their own homes or apartments during the last 3 1/2 weeks of summer camp and tested frequently. With a Tier 1 designation at their respective ballparks, they must avoid contact with people outside their designation once they arrive at work, so they mostly only have to worry about their contacts outside the workplace.
Before the season started last Thursday, MLB announced there were only six new positive tests out of 10,939 samples taken, or .05 percent. The Cubs have had no players test positive so far, while the White Sox have had two, including Yoan Moncada.
But obviously the risks are greater once the season begins and teams leave their “bubble communities” for the road, where they face new obstacles. They’ll have to change their routines if they used to work out in the mornings at team hotels, and basically must stay confined to their hotel rooms to avoid contact with outsiders.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said Sunday. “I don’t think that’s something for me to be worried about. I’m not trying to put my focus on the tests of getting COVID-19. We as a team will do our best to keep ourselves safe, and we’re going to keep doing it. I know we’re going to do a different city, but we have to make sure we bring everything to clean our rooms.
“I bought sheets, I bought my own towels, and I’m bringing some Lysol, because you don’t know where you’re going.”
Starter Tyler Chatwood, who won Sunday’s game at Wrigley and won’t start again until next Friday at home, said he chose to go on the road trip even though he was given the option of staying home.
“As different as this season is already I wanted to make it as normal as possible, be out there for the boys, be rooting them on, being able to get my work in (with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy) in between side sessions,” Chatwood said. “Hopefully they got some good movies on the (hotel) TV, something to watch.”
Players will try to create their own road bubbles, and hope the Marlins’ crisis isn’t the first domino leading to the end of the baseball season.