MLB Must Choose: A Legitimate Season, or a Safe One

It’s time to acknowledge that the only way to get through this season will be to treat it as an exhibition.
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As MLB’s attempt to play baseball amid a pandemic continues to unravel, it’s time for officials to ask themselves: What are we trying to do here?

This could have played out differently. U.S. officials could have contained the spread of the coronavirus as has every other developed country in the world, or the league could have chosen a “bubble” plan in which all personnel were subject to a sealed quarantine environment. But the president spent months downplaying the threat of the virus and players and owners agreed that a bubble sounded like a drag.

So instead, the country, which holds 4% of the world’s population, is responsible for 26% of the COVID-19 cases, and baseball players are encouraged to “exercise care” but are not actually prohibited from hosting a team dinner at an indoor bar that is holding a coughing competition.

And now at least three teams are dealing with questions of an outbreak. Last Friday, the Marlins had recorded one positive test for COVID-19. Everyone else was negative until last Sunday, when three more players tested positive. They played the Phillies anyway, but they canceled their flight home and remained in Philadelphia to await the results of their next round of tests.

On Monday, those tests showed that a total of 11 players and two coaches had the virus. The league postponed that night’s game.

On Tuesday, four more players tested positive. The league postponed all Miami games through the following Sunday and all Phillies games through Friday.

On Wednesday, another Marlins player tested positive.

On Thursday, another Marlins player tested positive, as did two Phillies staffers. The league postponed Philadelphia’s weekend series.

And on Friday, in what appears to be an unrelated outbreak, two Cardinals players tested positive. The league postponed that night’s game. That means that 20% of the league will be inactive on Friday because of the coronavirus.

“The rescheduling as a result of two positive COVID-19 tests in the Cardinals’ organization is consistent with protocols to allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted,” MLB said in a statement. “Saturday’s game between the Clubs will remain as scheduled for 6:10 p.m. (CT).”

One day off will have little effect, argues Emory epidemiologist Zach Binney. “I would be afraid for more infections incubating, even if you got zero from today’s tests,” he says. He would recommend a five-day shutdown—seven days from the initial positive sample. That period would be sufficient to catch most infections.

That period would also be sufficient to torpedo any hope of completing the 60 games MLB intends to play in 66 days, which is probably why the league has not yet implemented it.

This is the problem with playing a daily sport without daily testing: The every-other-day testing plus up to 48-hour lag in results means someone can have the virus for nearly four days before he learns of his diagnosis. If his team hits a tight stretch of doubleheaders, he could play in six games while carrying COVID-19.

He could also be the victim of a false negative, as Nationals star rightfielder Juan Soto appears to have been. Or he could just wake up with a cough and inform team officials, as Reds second baseman Mike Moustakas and centerfielder Nick Senzel did. In all three cases, the players were held out of games while their teammates grumbled about competitive integrity.

What they don’t seem to realize is that there’s almost none of that left, anyway. MLB has already placed a runner on second base to open each extra inning. It is now preparing to implement seven-inning doubleheaders. Sixteen teams—more than half the league—will make the playoffs. This is barely baseball as it is.

It’s time to acknowledge that the only way to get through this season will be to treat it as an exhibition. Any time two or more players test positive within two days of one another, shut their team down for five days. Do away with any notion that teams must play 60 games, but do pay the players as if they did. Feel good if each team makes it to 40. And stop squawking about competitive integrity.

MLB can have a safe season or a legitimate one, but as the last week has proven, it can’t have both.