Less than one week into the Major League Baseball season, the integrity of the season has already been compromised. In what wound up being a moment of foreshadowing, the Miami Marlins woke up on Sunday to the news that three of their players—including the day’s starting pitcher, José Ureña—were diagnosed with COVID-19. With Jorge Alfaro testing positive just before Opening Day on Friday, the total number of positive cases on the Marlins was at four. Somehow, their Sunday game against Philadelphia was allowed to go on, with the four COVID-positive players quarantining at the hotel.
In an unsurprising turn of events, the Marlins woke up on Monday to find that at least 13 total members of their traveling party have tested positive for the virus. The league canceled the Marlins’ home opener against the Baltimore Orioles scheduled for Monday night. Now, both teams are expected to travel to Baltimore to play games on Wednesday and Thursday if the latest round of pending test results are “acceptable,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says.
Much has been made about who’s most responsible for this complete fiasco. The Marlins quickly became the target of heated criticism from people around the league. Manfred has also caught his share of flak, too.
Rob Manfred and Rob Manfred alone has/had the power to stop the Marlins from playing in Philly yesterday. It is imperative for him to explain why he did not do so.— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) July 27, 2020
Where should we should place the blame?
Answer: on everyone involved.
The beginning of this debacle actually started on Friday, when Jorge Alfaro was scratched just a few hours before first pitch due to receiving a positive result from his COVID test. It is unclear when exactly Alfaro was tested, but he was able to travel with Marlins on an airplane from Atlanta to Philadelphia on Wednesday night, before sharing a bus and hotel with his teammates. After hearing that two Braves players developed COVID symptoms, it is entirely possible that Alfaro contracted the virus in Atlanta before getting on a plane with his teammates.
This brings us to Sunday morning. José Ureña, Harold Ramirez, and Garrett Cooper all tested positive. According to Manfred, following contract tracing, symptom checks and temperature checks, Major League Baseball ruled that conditions were safe enough to play that day. That still left the Marlins with final input.
After Sunday’s game, manager Don Mattingly said that although the coaching staff and front office had discussions about the status of the game, they posed the question to their players. The Marlins have some smart veterans on this team with sound judgement. But professional athletes will almost always choose to play, unless their body literally does not work anymore. That is particularly true for the individuals in this situation—they have had the opportunity to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns and declined to do so.
The Marlins’ front office needed to step in and be the voice of reason. Knowing that they had four confirmed cases entering Sunday, and that those individuals had been sharing close spaces with teammates during this road trip, is more than enough reason to cancel a game and quarantine everyone. But they chose to labor on instead. After all, they aren’t infectious disease experts, and the idea of listening to players before making a decision is actually a little bit noble.
Through all of the mayhem that occurred Sunday into Monday, a lot of people were asking the same question: What is Major League Baseball doing about this? Ureña was abruptly scratched from his scheduled start at around 11:30 a.m. ET on Sunday, and the league office did not come out with a public statement until almost 24 hours later. That is a full day without giving the Marlins or the Phillies guidance on what to do next, or giving the fans some type of reassurance as to what is going on around the league. For 24 hours, Manfred left Mattingly and the Marlins out to dry, leaving the skipper to face tough questions from the media after the game that he simply did not have the answers to.
The notion that Marlins Manager Don Mattingly is hanging out as the public face of baseball's COVID explanation is absurd in a moment when the sport needs to convey big-picture information about what happened, and what happens next.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 27, 2020
In fact, it doesn’t seem like MLB had the answers, either. The words “outbreak” and “canceled” are mentioned zero times in their operations manual for the 2020 season. It is negligent for MLB to put players in situations where COVID spread is inevitable, and not have a plan when that spread finally happens. MLB has put in place what seems to be effective protocols when an individual tests positive, but they did not clarify what happens in the event that half a team gets sick. Manfred said Monday night that it would take “a team losing a number of players that render it completely non-competitive” to suspend play league-wide. Aren’t the Marlins already heading in that direction?
The 2020 offseason featured an embarrassing labor dispute, and the season is only a week old before the league embarrassed itself again with its inaction and indecisiveness. If this year is going to work, three things need to happen:
- MLB needs to communicate with its clubs and the public much more effectively than it has been.
- Rules that are in the operations manual actually need to be enforced by players and club personnel.
- More rules need to be added that aren’t already in there (e.g mandatory masks on the field).
If things like this don’t get corrected, it will be a very quick, unsatisfying and potentially tragic season for Major League Baseball.