ARLINGTON, Texas — The 2020 Major League Baseball season ended in the most appropriate way possible: with a trophy presentation and a possible superspreading event.
After canceling 43 regular season games this year to fend off potential outbreaks, Major League Baseball was hours away from completing the season in relative triumph on Tuesday night with a clinching Game 6 of the World Series. Then, in the second inning, the league learned that Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had tested positive for COVID-19. It was Turner’s Monday sample that had returned the result, so the league immediately expedited the testing of his Tuesday sample. They got the result during the seventh inning: That, too, tested positive.
The commissioner’s office called Dodgers owner Mark Walter. Walter called president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Friedman called manager Dave Roberts. After the bottom of the seventh, Roberts pulled Turner.
Turner was placed in an examination room, where his wife, Kourtney, joined him. He was told he was now in isolation. Then the Dodgers won their first title in 32 years, and he decided to join his teammates on the field, potentially exposing the virus to dozens of people the league had claimed it could protect.
SI's Tom Verducci reported MLB security personnel informed Turner he should remain in isolation, but as one source told Verducci, “He just basically said ‘[expletive] it, I’m going out there.’”
Neither Turner nor MLB immediately returned a request for comment on Tuesday night, although Turner tweeted that he is asymptomatic. In his postgame press conference, Friedman pushed back at the idea that his team had behaved badly.
“Having a mask on and staying socially distanced, he wanted to come out and take a picture with the trophy,” he said. “We can’t state strongly enough how big a role he played for this organization.”
In fact, for much of his time on the field, Turner did not wear a mask, nor did he stay socially distanced. Friedman should know: He spent several minutes chatting from inches away with a maskless Turner. Turner posed for photos with the trophy and with several teammates. He sprawled on the grass in the center of the team picture.
In a season nearly derailed by risky behavior, this was the most irresponsible moment yet. The league has protocols restricting behavior by people who have contracted the virus. “Any Covered Individual who tests positive for COVID-19 must immediately wear a face covering [and] isolate from all people,” the operations manual states. But on Tuesday, the scientists in baseball pants were allowed to make public-health policy based on what seemed most fun.
“I don’t think there was anyone that was going to stop him from going out,” said Friedman. There should have been. Each team is required to employ a compliance officer, and most of the top MLB brass, including commissioner Rob Manfred, was in the building.
Friedman argued that because everyone celebrating on the field had been sealed inside the playoff bubble for a month, Turner probably did not expose anyone who would not already have been exposed. (It’s worth noting that Turner managed to contract the virus despite the supposed impermeability of that bubble.) “From a contact tracing standpoint,” Friedman said, “We’re all kind of in that web.”
It’s true that players next to whom Turner had been lounging in the dugout were probably at no higher risk an hour after the team learned he was positive than an hour before, and most team employees knew he had tested positive and could have avoided him. But most players and staffers had their spouses and children on the field with them, many of whom were likely unaware. Studies suggest the effects of COVID can linger for months or longer, and even people who exhibit only mild symptoms can develop serious, debilitating brain damage. Should the toddlers crawling around home plate have been made to take that risk?
Everyone in the Dodgers’ traveling party will be tested on Wednesday morning. Friedman could not say whether they would be allowed to leave the hotel. The truth is that no one really knows. Even though the league had an entire season to plan for this eventuality, people familiar with the situation say there was no plan for what to do if the Rays had forced a Game 7. A league source says they would have continued to test everyone daily and consulted with medical experts.
Fortunately for Manfred, the Dodgers won. And now they will all disperse to their offseason homes, taking with them their title—and possibly the virus.