According to a report published by MLB insider Jeff Passan on Friday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred threatened to end the 2020 season unless improvements were made in handling of the coronavirus during the shortened season. This came after over 21 members of the Miami Marlins organization tested positive for COVID-19, causing postponements and lengthy layoffs in the schedule of American and National League East teams.
Manfred and other MLB officials placed blame on the players for failing to adhere to safety protocols and also for making risky choices off the field. However, MLB’s ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic has been tested since Opening Night. Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto was held out of the lineup due to a positive test. Even though Soto was surely in close contact with many teammates, the game was still played as scheduled without any further quarantines. Baseball gods forbid Max Scherzer not face Gerrit Cole on ESPN!
Fans have since lost even more confidence in MLB thanks to a major outbreak on the Miami Marlins. Even though “multiple” Marlins had already tested positive ahead of the July 26 game against Philadelphia, MLB left the decision on whether or not to play up to the players and manager Don Mattingly.
According to Mattingly, infielder Miguel Rojas led a group text discussing whether or not to proceed as scheduled. The Marlins decided to play. Rojas simply stated, “That was never our thought that we weren’t going to play.” He has since tested positive for COVID-19 along with 20 other members of the Marlins and two Phillies staff members, leading to postponement of the Phillies’ weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Marlins have not played since July 26, and their contests are postponed through August 6.
This was in part due a vote by Washington Nationals players not to travel to Miami for the series scheduled to take place this past weekend.
These problems could easily have been prevented if MLB had taken initiative to determine how to handle large outbreaks on teams. The southern and western United States are experiencing a major surge in COVID-19 cases, so it was entirely foreseeable that there would be a number of positive cases among teams, especially given that MLB is not playing in a “bubble” environment. The league could and should have determined a procedure on how to handle multiple positive tests on a team, in consultation with medical experts. Instead, the decisions are being left to players and coaches, who have a financial incentive to continue playing even when it is not safe to do so.
Other team sports leagues like the NBA, WNBA and NHL have developed plans to compete in “bubble” environments, where teams stay on a campus to limit travel and contain potential transmission. Even though the NBA and WNBA have chosen to locate their bubbles in Florida, a coronavirus hotspot, these leagues have not experienced major outbreaks of COVID-19.
Instead of attempting to negotiate such an environment with the MLB Players’ Association or developing detailed procedures on how to handle team outbreaks, the league spent precious weeks haggling over salary, an issue that could have been prevented by a force majeure clause such as the one that exists in the NBA collective bargaining agreement.
This absence of leadership mirrors the political environment in the United States as a whole. According to a report recently published by Vanity Fair, Jared Kushner, the top adviser and son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, developed a COVID-19 response strategy in coordination with US business leaders that later “just went poof into thin air.” While this plan was not developed with the assistance of medical experts, it was still a national response led by the federal government. It was instead abandoned because Trump’s political strategists were in favor of leaving states to fend for themselves because the pandemic initially had a worse impact on states that did not support Trump.
The lack of a coherent national strategy has led to an inconsistent response by local leaders in the United States. Governors who want to curry favor with Trump are downplaying virus risks and nixing local ordinances ordering usage of face coverings in public spaces. Nightclubs and bars have been allowed to reopen in some jurisdictions even though it is clear the risk of transmission is much greater indoors.
This means individuals like professional baseball players are free to frequent these establishments, increasing their likelihood of contracting the coronavirus and passing it to others.
Several months after the initial wave of the virus hit major population centers in the United States, COVID-19 has taken hold in Trump strongholds like Texas and Florida. Over 150,000 American residents have died, the worst death toll in the entire world.
The United States’ inability to control the virus has impacted Major League Baseball’s footprint in North America. The Canadian federal government denied approval of the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to allow traveling parties into Canada in order to play home games at Rogers Centre in Toronto. The federal health authorities specifically balked at travel to and from coronavirus hotspots like Florida, home to the division rival Tampa Bay Rays.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major world crisis that has interrupted not only professional sports, but also our human community and way of life. Preventing death and a complete collapse of the global economy requires leadership by governments and organizations. Both President Trump and Rob Manfred have completely failed in their duty to provide a strong, coherent response to this crisis.
Tens of thousands of American residents have died, and millions more face homelessness and hunger without continued government support. The US passport is now nearly completely useless thanks to travel restrictions by countries that have taken the pandemic more seriously. Major League Baseball, which has styled itself as synonymous with American values and the American way of life, is the laughingstock of the sports world. The US government and MLB will need to mount a 2-out 9th inning comeback in order to remain relevant in the post-pandemic world.
Featured Image: Rob Manfred being interviewed at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. by Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com.