By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — “This whole thing has the makings of MLB’s worst nightmare.”
Those were the words of an unnamed executive from an unnamed team who was watching the Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 situation unfold from afar. Those words were spoken before the number of positive cases within the Marlins locker room jumped from “just” four to 13.
Those were words that look awfully prescient now, less than 24 hours later, when Major League Baseball and the sports world at large are being forced to take a step back and reassess just about everything when it comes to holding a professional sports season in the midst of a raging pandemic.
What the Marlins are experiencing is a full-blown coronavirus outbreak, a situation that was undoubtedly treated with an alarming level of indifference by all involved parties on Sunday. It’s not entirely clear how or if the situation was made worse by the Marlins being allowed to take the field against the Phillies just hours after learning that four of their players had tested positive for COVID-19, but given the rapid rise in positive tests among the Marlins, MLB’s lack of decisiveness on Sunday looks to be an absolutely reckless move by Rob Manfred’s league.
MLB dodged a bullet, of sorts, when the Nationals took the field just hours after learning of Juan Soto’s positive test on Opening Day. As far as the public knows, none of Soto’s teammates have tested positive for the virus since Soto contracted it, a development that might have encouraged MLB to drag its feet regarding any decision on Sunday’s Marlins-Phillies game.
Now, MLB is scrambling — and it has to. The Phillies’ home game against the Yankees has been postponed, as welcoming the Yankees into a visiting clubhouse where 13 infected players and coaches just spent time would be slightly unwise. The Marlins’ home game against the Orioles is likewise postponed, as the Marlins remain in Phiadelphia, uncertain of how or when they’ll be getting home to South Florida.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess what MLB might do, but based on their inaction on Sunday, any future decisions will rightfully be looked at with skepticism. If the league valued the health and safety of players and staff above all else, then Sunday’s game in Philadelphia simply would not have been played. As it is, we’re all left to wonder what exactly MLB’s top priority is.
We’re also left to wonder what this outbreak will mean across other sports — specifically football. While the “bubble” environments put in place for various leagues (NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLS) are not ironclad in their protection from the coronavirus pandemic, they certainly give players and coaches a better chance of not just starting but finishing their respective seasons and postseasons.
The NFL, meanwhile, will operate similarly to MLB, in that players will be living at home, taking road trips in hotels, and otherwise existing within a country where containment of COVID-19 has proven unattainable for five months. The NFL also has the added complication of rosters that include three times as many players, plus larger coaching staffs, plus more equipment staff members, and more trainers. That’s more people gathering from all around the country to share a confined space before taking the field and participating in a full-contact sport.
If baseball couldn’t make it one weekend without experiencing an outbreak, what hope does football have?
That’s a question that can’t necessarily be answered at this precise moment. But if the NFL hopes to hold a season and thus follow through with the goal it has stated innumerable times since March, it’s time to start taking notes and adapting the strategy. Clearly, the approach of “test regularly and hope for the best” is not enough to contain a viral outbreak — not when teams are traveling to and from states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.
For both MLB and NFL (and of course college football, which has no business even considering a season involving unpaid amateurs right now), there are obviously no simple solutions. As you may have heard three or four million times by now, this is an unprecedented situation in all facets. There’s no magic solution, and there’s no easy decision.
The Marlins’ situation, though, should serve as a startling wake-up call that proactive steps to try to contain the virus absolutely must be taken whenever possible. This is a virus that has not cared much for the convenience or desires of the American public, and the sports world is surely not immune from that truth.
For Major League Baseball, it may already be too late. Don’t be surprised to see more players opting out after discovering not just how negligent MLB was to allow Sunday’s game in Philadelphia to take place but also just how rapidly the virus can spread through a clubhouse. Players who may have been on the fence about being a risk to their immediate families may now have a sudden change of heart. The Marlins are already scouring to add players as they try to figure out how to even proceed after 11 players have tested positive and will be out of the lineup for foreseeable future. The Marlins ought to figure out how they’ll be traveling back to Miami first, though.
For now, MLB has postponed a game in Miami and a game in Philadelphia. In a shortened season on a condensed calendar where the league is also trying to squeeze in an expanded postseason, there won’t be ample time to make up those games. If and when more games need to be canceled, the problem only compounds.
For the NFL, it’s certainly not too late. While it’s possible that MLB manages to get a handle on this current situation, the NFL shouldn’t assume that to be a given. The NFL powers that be — and hopefully that involves people with more critical thinking and crisis-management skills than Roger Goodell — need to put themselves in MLB’s shoes right now and figure out how their league could have done more to prevent it, as well as how their league would and will handle a similar outbreak. Whether that means minor tweaks (more separation inside facilities, stricter mandates on where/what players can do away from work, etc.) or significant changes (regional bubbles, shortened seasons, less travel, etc.) can be discussed. Nothing is absolute or predictable at this precise moment in time.
But if there’s any one thing that is crystal clear, it’s that these discussions need to be taking place right now. They need to be broad, they need to be time-consuming, they need to be creative. Executives must rely on advice from experts. They must seek input from doctors who are not under employ of the league. They must brainstorm worst-case scenarios and assume they will become realities if they hope to manage matters of varying severity over the coming months.
Again, as Lou Williams taught us over the weekend, the “bubble” environments aren’t perfect. But they do give their leagues a fighting chance to pull off a very strange postseason during a very strange time in American history. The most recent results for NBA, NHL and MLS came back with zero positive tests. As long as the bubble rules are adhered to, there’s reason to believe those leagues can survive.
But leagues like MLB and NFL remain fretfully imperiled, as players are set to live among the general population, travel among the general population, spend time in restaurants and hotels and other establishments in a country where 18 states set single-day records for positive cases just this past week.
Hoping for the best simply cannot and will not work. Ignoring positive cases will only make matters worse.
Major League Baseball is learning that reality the hard way, and the implications of somehow being indefensibly slow to react during a nationwide crisis are yet to be realized. They could be massive.
The NFL still has a chance to avoid such a fate. But the work — the real, difficult work — to save the season and the sport must begin now.