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MLB Already Has a Coronavirus Outbreak. What Happens Now?

At least 13 players and coaches on the Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19 since Friday. Their Monday game against the Orioles has been postponed, and now the league has crucial decisions to make.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 MLB season, all four days and 46 games of it, was fun while it lasted. Now the grim reality of the real world is back—not that it ever left, or stopped interfering with the league’s plans—and bringing a coronavirus outbreak with it. An already shortened season might be far shorter than the 60-game format suggests.

At least 13 players and coaches with the Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19 since Friday, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. With the team remaining in Philadelphia, where it played its opening series, Miami’s scheduled Monday game against the Orioles has been postponed. The Phillies’ Monday game against the Yankees has been postponed as well.

And now MLB has to confront a potential season stopper, both because of what this early challenge means for the league’s broader plans to complete a three-month season with copious city-to-city travel, and because of the very real ripple effects that might emanate from the Marlins’ outbreak itself.

One Marlins player reportedly learned of a positive test on Friday, and three more, including scheduled starting pitcher José Ureña, did so on Sunday. But Miami still played its scheduled Sunday game against the Phillies, with manager Don Mattingly saying that the team “never really considered not playing,” even as it awaited further test results that, as we learned Monday, would have revealed a more widespread incidence of the virus.

The club decided not to fly home on Sunday night as it awaited those results, only to see them force the postponement of at least one game. Yet other teams beyond the Marlins and Orioles are potentially affected:

  • The Phillies, most obviously, played the Marlins over the weekend, and though epidemiologists who spoke with The Athletic “estimated that the chances of a Marlins player infecting a member of the Phillies was low,” some Phillies players were sufficiently concerned that they wore face masks on the bases Sunday. “We do a great job as an organization really following protocols and doing things the right way,” Bryce Harper, one of the new mask-wearers, said after the game. “Hopefully we can all stay healthy and the odds will be in our favor.”
  • The Yankees are scheduled to play a series in Philadelphia that runs through Thursday. If the games beyond Monday aren’t postponed as well, would Aaron Boone’s team feel comfortable sharing a field with the Phillies, let alone using the same visitors clubhouse that the Marlins just vacated?
  • Atlanta played against Miami in a pair of exhibition games last Tuesday and Wednesday. As the epidemiologists said in the case of the Phillies, it’s unlikely that any team-to-team spread would have occurred in that game. But back in March, one of the reasons the NBA shut down after Rudy Gobert tested positive was how many teams his Utah Jazz had recently played, and the possibility of a chain infection from team to team. Atlanta was already playing with a third-string catcher over the weekend, as starter Travis d’Arnaud and backup Tyler Flowers felt symptomatic—but did not test positive—before the team traveled to New York for its opening series.
  • The Mets hosted Atlanta over the weekend. The same contact-tracing logic applies to yet another team in the NL East.
  • Beyond just the teams themselves, there are also all of the lower-paid workers who come into contact with baseball teams to consider: flight personnel, clubhouse attendees, hotel workers, and so on. Some of them may have been exposed, and MLB has a moral responsibility to consider how this baseball season impacts their safety, too.

In May, The Ringer’s Michael Baumann spoke about MLB’s pandemic plans with Laura Albert, a public health researcher at the University of Wisconsin. She said it was unlikely any single infected player wouldn’t pass the virus to a teammate or coach, because even with expanded health and safety protocols, players and coaches spend so much time in close proximity—on planes, on buses, in clubhouses during rain delays. “Ideally, you’d like to quarantine the whole team or half the team,” Albert says, “and at that point, you can’t really bring baseball back.”

Half the Marlins are now in need of quarantine, and with an outbreak of this size appearing in the opening weekend of the season, there is little to suggest that the other 29 teams can reach the end of the scheduled season unscathed. While other American sports leagues are operating under “bubble” conditions, which proved successful in the case of the National Women’s Soccer League, MLB is letting teams travel around the country, including to and from COVID-19 hot spots like Florida. The Canadian government prevented the Toronto Blue Jays from playing games in their home country for this very reason.

In South Korea, the top-flight KBO baseball league began its regular season in May, following a month-long COVID-19 delay, with plans to shut down the whole league for three weeks in the event of a single positive test. MLB blew past that number before its season even began, and kept playing despite prominent cases: Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto was held out from the defending World Series champions’ Opening Night showcase game after testing positive on Thursday. No other Nationals were held out of their games against the Yankees as a result of Soto’s positive test.

MLB’s operations manual doesn’t specify a clear threshold for shutting down seasons for either individual teams or the whole league. Those decisions are up to commissioner Rob Manfred, who so wanted to herald the sport’s return as a triumph. Now, he has to decide just how much he’s willing to uphold the planned schedule, versus adapt to the rapidly changing, and dangerous, situation on the ground.