The day after Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the 2020 season was at risk because test results have been delayed, Rob Manfred accused Rizzo of insubordination. That’s an atrocious comment even by Manfred’s standards. Just last week, he all but admitted that ownership never had any intention of paying the players for more than 60 games. Last year, when Michael Kay asked him if experimenting with the distance from the mound to home plate would injure players in the Atlantic League, his response was “That’s why we’re doing it in the Atlantic League.”
Dismissing an executive’s legitimate concerns over the health and safety of his team and staff doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the commissioner’s ability to do the right thing. The right thing, of course, is to cancel the season.
Neither the league nor the country have shown that baseball is ready to return. On Friday, MLB announced that 38 players and staff tested positive for COVID-19. This was framed as a 1.2 percent positive test rate, but as Brittany Ghiroli of the Athletic reported, “a vast majority of teams had incomplete or pending results. They were not able to submit those to the league by the deadline.” Days later, we still don’t know how many people within MLB have the novel coronavirus because MLB’s lab in Utah hasn’t been able to keep up and the league didn’t properly plan around FedEx not delivering on Independence Day.
All we know is that at least 38 of MLB’s 3,185 individuals tested positive. On Tuesday, South Korea, a country of 51.6 million people, reported 44 new cases. New Zealand, a country of 4.8 million, reported two new cases on Tuesday. Even if the 1.2 percent positive test rate was accurate, on a rate basis and in terms of raw numbers, MLB is performing worse than entire countries.
That’s not necessarily MLB’s fault. If the plan were carried out perfectly, it would work in one of those countries that has contained the virus. America’s response has made sports’ return impractical. The Orlando Pride of the NWSL had to withdraw from the Challenger’s Cup tournament because of a team outbreak. MLS was supposed to return for the MLS is Back tournament this weekend, but games have been canceled and FC Dallas had to withdraw as well. The NHL reported 35 positive cases and several NBA teams have had to shut practice facilities down.
Maybe MLB could work around those positive cases if they knew with 100 percent certainty that those who tested positive definitely had the virus and those who tested negative definitely didn’t have it. They can’t know that if tests are taking more than 48 hours to turn around, and already, there have been instances of false negatives. Joey Gallo tested positive, then negative, then positive. Freddie Freeman tested negative at intake testing before showing symptoms a few days later. If he contracted the virus after intake, there’s a good chance intake missed a positive case in Atlanta and that missed case went on to infect three others on the team.
Because test results have been so inconsistently delivered, multiple teams have had to cancel workouts. The Astros and Nationals canceled workouts on Monday, and the Giants canceled on Tuesday. Every day that results are delayed either means another day the infection can spread undetected.
Players can opt out if they don’t feel safe and a few have or have openly considered it. David Price, Nick Markakis, Ryan Zimmerman, and Mike Leake have all opted out. Mike Trout, Buster Posey, and Sean Doolittle have all said they had considered it or would opt out if things went poorly.
That option isn’t really available to every player. Robbie Ray said that he has to pitch this year because he’s entering free agency at the end of the season. Brock Holt, whose wife Lakyn is pregnant, said that he has to play because his career might be over otherwise. Joe Ross is the only player to opt out whose career earnings total less than $27 million. Not every player is a millionaire or is guaranteed of a job next year. Every bench player gunning for a starting job or every fringe prospect looking for a shot has to weigh his life’s work and ambition against the health and safety of himself and his family.
If the season is played, the best-case scenario is that baseball is played. It’ll be a wonky 60-game season where the home run leader might have 19 bombs and the Miami Marlins might make the World Series. The worst-case is that people die. Playing sports in America right now is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. There’s so little to be gained, but so very much to lose.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.