Paul Sullivan: Baseball is in crisis mode as more MLB players and staff test positive for COVID-19

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Seems like just yesterday Anthony Rizzo was providing hand sanitizer at first base for Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia.

It was a Rockwellian moment for the restart of the 2020 baseball season, giving viewers reason to smile and briefly put the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic on hold.

“We’re playing in unusual circumstances,” Rizzo said afterward, admitting he was just trying to bring some fun back after the lengthy shutdown.

But only eight days later, baseball already was in crisis mode.

The latest news out of Milwaukee — four more positive coronavirus tests in the Cardinals organization — forced the postponement of Saturday’s game with the Brewers in Miller Park. Not long after that news broke, the Brewers announced outfielder Lorenzo Cain will opt out of playing the rest of the season.

One day earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred made his “Shape up or Shut Down” mandate to the players’ union, according to ESPN, threatening to halt the season if they don’t take things more seriously.

A report said one of the four positive tests was a Cardinals player, after two players tested positive Friday, leading to the cancellation of the Cardinals-Brewers game “out of an abundance of caution.”

With the Marlins’ outbreak putting their and the Phillies’ seasons on hold while leaving the Blue Jays and Nationals without weekend opponents, Manfred is under a harsh spotlight as he and his top consultants continue to wing it, obtaining agreements with the union to change rules such as adding six more postseason teams on opening day and on Friday mandating seven-inning games for all doubleheaders.

Should Manfred shut the season down now before there are more outbreaks?

Or should MLB consider the two outbreaks a regrettable but perhaps inevitable outcome of playing in a bubble-free environment?

Before the season began, one MLB executive pointed out the season will only succeed if the most non-compliant individual in an organization can be contained from the responsible majority. Most organizations, so far, have been able to do that in a tiered system in which only those in the highly protected Tier One can interact with each other inside the park.

But outside they’re on their own. And unless a team fully commits to following all the health and safety protocols and avoids taking any risks, outbreaks probably are going to happen, meaning more postponements and more doubleheaders.

“An abundance of caution” may wind up as the catchphrase of the pandemic-scarred season, which began with a warm and fuzzy MLB promo using the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The slogan “Let the kids play” suddenly has been replaced by “Let the kids play video games in their hotel rooms.”

Whether it’s wise for Manfred to lay the blame on the players is debatable, though the Marlins reportedly weren’t hiding their risk-taking activities by allegedly hanging out in the hotel bar. Writing a thorough 113-page plan on protocols doesn’t ensure those protocols will be followed. Certainly there’s still too much high-fiving and spitting, and socially distancing while leaning on a dugout railing is virtually impossible. Unless you ban leaning on the rail, it’s going to be hard to prevent a time-honored baseball tradition from playing out.

Kudos to Rizzo for speaking up on some of the pandemic-created problems that could be resolved by common sense, such as canceling a Cubs-Reds game early when it’s going to rain all day in Cincinnati instead of making the players hang out for eight hours in a confined clubhouse.

It would behoove union chief Tony Clark to tell his players to speak out on everyday issues more often, as NBA and NFL players do without fear of retribution. Ditto for agent Scott Boras, who is in charge of dozens of the game’s most prominent players, including Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant and Dallas Keuchel.

Manfred also should understand team management is responsible for the behavior of its players and staff, even if management can’t babysit them outside the park. We’re seeing which ones have been the most adamant about creating a safe environment and which ones are the most lax.

Cubs players have been perfect in testing so far, which is a credit to their commitment. But as Rizzo said Friday, no team can crow about its lack of positive tests because one infected player can grow to 10 on any given day, and we don’t know where that can happen.

MLB needs to focus on the more important issues regarding player and staff safety and not get distracted by the small stuff, such as turning up the fake crowd noise at Wrigley Field and Minute Maid Park so the players’ chirping isn’t heard on TV. Some teams seem more concerned about curtailing media access and limiting press box availability than their own clubhouses, knowing it’s easier to dictate the narrative if you decide which personnel is available and when they’re talking. The limiting of media is a dream come true for some owners.

General managers and team presidents should be available to reporters regularly during this uncharted season. Some get it. Others simply make their managers and a player or two answer all the COVID-19 related questions that arise on a daily basis. Hiding behind the Zoom Curtain certainly is easier and less stressful, but it doesn’t project true leadership.

These are strange times for everyone, and we’re all “adjusting on the fly,” to use another worn-out staple of baseball’s new pandemic-altered lexicon.

But I honestly believe for the first time in more than three decades of covering baseball there is a mutual empathy between players and the writers who’ve covered them for years.

We all want the game to go on.

We all want to provide some much-needed relief from the daily deluge of coronavirus news — players as entertainers and writers as chroniclers of that entertainment.

And we all want to remain healthy and safe for our own sake and our families’ sake.

We may never again meet face-to-face now that teleconferences are the norm.

But we’re on this ride together, World Series or bust.

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