A COVID-19 outbreak in the Miami Marlins’ clubhouse postponed the Orioles’ scheduled game Monday night in Miami, forcing the team to fly home a day early and creating a crisis for Major League Baseball less than a week into its attempt at a 60-game season in a global pandemic.
It began with one positive test for a Miami player on Friday and three more positive tests Sunday morning in Philadelphia. That quickly grew into a massive challenge for the league and its player safety protocols as the Marlins played anyway, delayed their flight home a day and woke up to several more positive tests.
The situation calls into question how the league’s testing procedures can prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in a clubhouse and whether the first major sports league to resume can continue under these circumstances.
The outbreak forced the Orioles, who went straight to Miami on Sunday night after their win over the Boston Red Sox, to fly home Monday evening. They had been scheduled to face the Marlins on Tuesday as well before the series shifted to Baltimore for games Wednesday and Thursday night.
The New York Yankees’ game Monday at the Philadelphia Phillies was also called off. The Yankees would have been in the same clubhouse the Marlins used last weekend.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday evening on MLB Network that player safety was the league’s top concern and that the Marlins’ testing results in the coming days would determine a path forward.
“If the testing results are acceptable, the Marlins will resume play in Baltimore on Wednesday against the Orioles,” Manfred said.
The postponement represents the first significant breakdown of MLB’s testing policies and safety protocols as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the league, summer camps at home ballparks and secondary sites for minor league depth and prospects went off largely without a hitch.
The Marlins’ starting catcher Jorge Alfaro tested positive Friday. Three key players followed Sunday. According to ESPN, eight additional players and two coaches tested positive for COVID-19 in follow-up testing.
Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said in a statement: “The health of our players and staff has been and will continue to be our primary focus as we navigate through these uncharted waters. After a successful spring 2.0, we have now experienced challenges once we went on the road and left Miami. Postponing tonight’s home opener was the correct decision to ensure we take a collective pause and try to properly grasp the totality of this situation.”
In the Marlins’ postgame media sessions Sunday, manager Don Mattingly said that despite losing three players to positive tests that morning, the team didn’t consider not playing.
Miguel Rojas, the team’s union representative, said that the option to play or not play was presented to the team in a group chat and players said they wanted to carry on.
MLB’s return-to-play protocols say that those who come into contact with players who have positive tests should quarantine pending a negative test result. It’s unclear when the Marlins received the latest positive test results.
In his MLB Network interview, Manfred said that he feels like “the protocols have worked well,” and outlined how the Marlins were allowed to play Sunday.
“There was testing on Friday, one positive on Saturday, testing again on Saturday and the three additional positives on Sunday,” he said. “What then happened under the protocols was we did contact tracing on all four positives. There was a small number of players who met the CDC guidelines; they were quarantined. We ordered additional testing. We did symptom checks. We did temperature checks. We decided to proceed with the game on Sunday.”
That said, Manfred said conversations with the players’ union about protocols and enforcement were ongoing.
“It’s an evolving situation, and we continue to re-evaluate where we are on the protocols and what we can do to keep the players as safe as possible,” he said.
It’s not clear whether government officials will allow the Marlins to play at Camden Yards this week. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office deferred to the state.
“In terms of protocols, the Maryland Stadium Authority is the lead state agency, and they’ve been in discussions with the Orioles throughout the day,” Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said Monday. “The team is awaiting guidance from MLB.”
As the season began, players were restricted as to what they could do off the field, and at the ballpark, measures were taken to keep them physically distant and away from each other while indoors.
On Friday, the first full day of the regular season, the league announced four new positive tests for players and two for staff in the week leading up to Opening Day.
The process took a blow, however, when Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto couldn’t participate in the nationally televised season opener because of a positive test.
A handful more players either tested positive or reported symptoms during the season’s first weekend, but the delay in returning results for the league’s every-other-day testing was exposed in the Marlins’ case.
The Orioles were already preparing to proceed with caution while in Miami. Manager Brandon Hyde said Sunday that team members knew they had to stay in their hotels to follow team protocols away from the park.
“I think it’s 65 days of us taking care of what we need to take care of off the field, and that’s really staying away from people the best we possibly can and to make sure we’re socially distanced and make sure we’re wearing masks,” Hyde said.
Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez summed up the situation in a season barely under way.
“I’m going to be honest with you: I’m scared,” Martinez said. “I got guys in our clubhouse that are really concerned, as well.”
Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto, said the Marlins’ outbreak isn’t a surprise because Manfred’s plan was seriously flawed.
“Baseball is in huge trouble,” Morris said. “This was not a plan anyone who knows what they are talking about would have conceived. It’s playing out like it was supposed to play out.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said it might pose a challenge for the MLB to keep players and coaches healthy if COVID-19 cases continue to surge around the country, especially in the cities where they play.
“This should underscore the need to suppress COVID-19 infections, and that should be our goal,” Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, said. “It’s the same issue facing schools. It’s hard to reopen anything if you have cases escalating.”
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Wen said that while she was not familiar with the MLB’s full mitigation strategy, it should continue to use rapid and widespread testing as a mitigation tool.
But this brings up the question of equity, she said, as the league takes tests away from other urgent cases in the country. “It is really important we prioritize widespread testing as a national strategy,” she said.
MLB is the only U.S. pro sports league attempting to restart outside a bubble that would bring all teams to one place to isolate and safely complete their season. The NHL announced Monday that, during the final week of its Phase 3 to return to play in Toronto and Edmonton, which spanned from July 18 to July 25, 4,256 COVID-19 tests were conducted and none came back positive.
MLB never got far on its bubble plan and instead has the teams traveling for games all across the country. To cover for the possibility of positive tests, each team has a secondary site full of as many as 30 reserve players ready in case of injury or illness.
Once they get a handle on how many positive tests they have, the Marlins could pull from that site to fill out their roster. The Orioles were scheduled to play there Monday and Tuesday before the two teams came to Camden Yards for the Orioles’ home opener.