MLB’s 1st outbreak raises tough questions

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Watching professional baseball for the first time in nearly six months was like living in a fantasy. Despite the oddity of no fans, it almost felt like normal times to sit down and watch a baseball game that actually counted. And with a full weekend slate of games played to completion, it felt like MLB had moved past all the drama it took to get the season started.

But like most fantasies, it was too good to be true.

Baseball fans woke up Monday morning to the news that nine more Miami Marlins players and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 on top of the four athletes diagnosed a few days before. With a total of 13 Miami affiliates having come down with the disease in two days, it’s clear that this is more than a couple of unlucky infections — the Marlins have a full-blown outbreak.

Suddenly, the things I conveniently ignored during the first weekend of the season became terrifyingly apparent. The idea that this season could not only be completed but actually work for both players and fans began to slip further away from reality.

The MLB quickly responded to the positive tests by postponing the Marlins’ home opener against the Orioles. The Phillies versus Yankees game quickly followed suit after safety concerns surfaced about the Phillies’ possible infections and the cleanliness of their clubhouses following their weekend series versus Miami.

While the postponements were clearly the correct moves for the league, the Miami outbreak has brought forth many questions about the rest of the season.

First and most importantly, the health of players and staff members is in major question. Part of the problem lies with the MLB’s decision to not play in a bubble, a decision no other U.S. professional sports league has made. While that may be more convenient for players and their families, the league ran the risk of players consistently testing positive after training camp — a risk that has manifested itself within the season’s first four games.

With this risk came added responsibility on both players and the league. Now the integrity of each has become dubious following the controversial decision to play Sunday’s game between the Marlins and Phillies, even after four Marlins tested positive. The potential for a larger outbreak was definitely apparent, but neither the Marlins nor the league had any second thoughts beforehand. Now the MLB is dealing with at least two postponed games and a possible multiteam outbreak.

To be clear, this isn’t the first time players have contracted COVID-19 this season. But this is the first time there seems to be evidence of not only transmission within a team, but a clear lack of prudence from an organization and the league.

On top of the health and safety concerns, the whole validity of the season is being put on trial. Not only will rescheduling postponed games be an absolute logistical nightmare for teams, but the management of coronavirus-ridden teams may prove to be quite the challenge for the MLB.

While the newly expanded playoffs help account for some of the uncertainty with rosters and schedules, it can’t make up for all the unknowns. So when outbreaks like this happen and half a team is infected, the MLB will have a hard time figuring out how that team could possibly compete over the next two to three weeks. With such a short season, it just doesn’t have a realistic chance at overcoming that.

Though the Marlins were set to be one of the NL’s bottomfeeders, these fears ring true for World Series contenders such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros. Is the league prepared to exclude one of these teams from the playoffs if an outbreak takes out half their team for a month?

These aren’t new issues — they have been part of the conversation since the season was announced. However, the problems are becoming more of a real possibility each day, and they will need solutions.

Yet, despite all these issues and the drama of the last 24 hours, there is still hope for the 2020 baseball season. If the outbreak stays contained in the Marlins, the MLB will dodge a huge bullet, at least for the time being.

For this season to work, however, both players and league officials must learn from these events. If there are any signs of transmission between teammates, the team and the MLB must take responsible action and cancel future games and travel immediately, not after dozens of players test positive. They must also utilize and listen to each team’s infectious disease experts, who are there for this exact reason.

Because at the end of the day, we aren’t living in a bubble or fantasy but amid the worst pandemic in a century, and MLB needs to act that way.

Noah Parker covers women’s golf. Contact him at [email protected].