Nationals Push Back Against Playing Marlins in Miami

As Marlins grapple with a coronavirus outbreak, the Nationals decided against traveling to a COVID-19 hot spot.
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A few hours before the Nationals lost to the Blue Jays on Monday night, they may have scored the most important win of the pandemic-shortened season: They realized they had a voice, and they used it.

As of Tuesday morning, 15 Marlins players and two coaches had reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. Washington is scheduled to play at Miami this weekend. So as the Nats trickled into the clubhouse after batting practice on Monday, they found GM Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez waiting for them, someone familiar with the conversation tells SI.

The executives asked the players to raise their hands if they felt uncomfortable traveling to Miami. Most raised their hands. O.K., Rizzo and Martinez told them. We don’t want you worrying about anything other than baseball. We’ll take it to the league.

MLB declined comment on Tuesday.

It’s never easy to predict what commissioner Rob Manfred will do. But it’s hard to imagine a worse look than the league spending three months insisting that health and safety is the priority and then forcing some 50 people into a COVID-19 hotspot—Florida now ranks second only to California in total cases—against their will.

“I’m scared,” Martinez, who has a heart condition, said yesterday. “My level of concern went from about an 8 to a 12.”

Players have long grumbled about their media obligations. But this winter they seemed to begin seeing the relationship differently. Across the league, players were furious with what they considered to be light punishment of the Astros, who had masterminded and executed a cheating scheme throughout their 2017 championship season. They began to seek out reporters. They wanted fans—and Manfred—to hear their voices.

They kept talking this spring, as the union and the league negotiated the resumption of play. Weary of arguing the same point over and over, the players eventually broke off conversations and staged a campaign through social and traditional media for Manfred to mandate a season. “We want to play,” they said. “Tell us when and where.”

After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, players spoke out about racial justice. Some of them said they had felt uncomfortable raising these issues. But they had realized the power of their words.

We see that power again now. Manfred—the cardboard-cutout commissioner, as SI’s Michael Rosenberg called him on Monday—has abdicated all responsibility when it comes to preventing the Marlins outbreak from spreading. He did not cancel the team’s game on Sunday against the Phillies, even though four players had already tested positive and the rest were awaiting results. Philadelphia right fielder Bryce Harper was left to wear a mask on the bases because he was worried. Manfred did not hold a press conference that night. He did not hold a press conference the following night, even after the league postponed the Marlins’ game against the Orioles and the Phillies’ game against the Yankees. He has not held a press conference since February.

MLB’s 113-page operations manual does not provide an objective standard for canceling games or the season. And the league and the union are incentivized to continue no matter how dangerous continuing becomes: Players only get paid for games played, and owners do not make their real money until the playoff TV deals kick in.

The season is in danger. More importantly, so are its participants. They can’t trust the league to protect them. So on Monday, they decided to protect themselves.