Four days into MLB’s return, it’s fair to question the strategy

Think the fact that the Washington Nationals scrapped their socially distanced practice schedule Monday has little impact on the players’ ability to prepare for a season that already has been severely delayed and truncated? This isn’t about Monday’s sessions. As General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a sharply worded statement, this is about whether there can be a season.

“We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families,” Rizzo said. “Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

I agree with all but one word: “Otherwise.” Because it’s clear: On the day MLB announced its 60-game schedule, both training and the season are decidedly at risk.

Why? Well, we’re all at risk, right? The novel coronavirus has irrefutably changed our lives going back months, yet it’s still here among us, ready to infect.

For so many of us, that means working from home. For essential workers, it means new schedules, new protocols, new masks.

For baseball players, it means — well, right now it means confusion and concern. Deep concern.

Consider Rizzo’s statement and apply it to the mayhem that enveloped the sport Monday. The Oakland Athletics haven’t been able to have all their players work out yet because their tests hadn’t arrived at the Utah laboratory that will handle all of baseball’s tests. Testers did not report to the Los Angeles Angels’ camp as scheduled Sunday. The Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals canceled workouts Monday because of delays in testing.

“We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence,” MLB said, by way of explanation, in a statement Monday afternoon.

So the Fourth of July snuck up on you, did it? Someone send MLB a calendar by Labor Day.

And yet, MLB considered Rizzo’s statement to be some sort of insubordination. “The commissioner jumped on him for that,” one person familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Monday. But what is Rizzo doing? In the midst of a public health crisis, he’s trying to protect his people — not just the players but also the necessary staff members, so many of whom are of an age that is decidedly more at risk.

It took MLB and the players’ union nearly four months to figure out a way to get back to work. It took all of four days for it to break down. Given how we have handled the virus as a country, go figure.

“We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said Sunday as he awaited the results of a coronavirus test taken Friday. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.”

Within the hour, Doolittle’s manager, Dave Martinez, announced that two Nationals players had tested positive for the coronavirus.

This can’t be overstated: When MLB — along with the NBA and the NHL, both slated to begin training camps within the next week — formulated its plan to return to play, it assumed Americans would have put in the work to slow the spread of the virus. It seemed only logical and responsible that we would wear masks, that we would stay away from large groups, that we would socially distance around others. Medical experts said each and every one of those steps was required of individuals for the greater good.

Instead, the opposite has happened. On June 25, there hadn’t been a single day since the virus was detected in the United States that the nation had recorded as many as 40,000 new cases, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Since then, there have been more than 40,000 cases 10 times in 11 days.

Into that environment, we introduce … baseball?

“I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe and I would be comfortable,” Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant told reporters Monday. “Honestly, I don’t really feel that way.”

How, exactly, are players supposed to perform if they don’t have a baseline sense of safety and comfort? Hey, two of your teammates are positive for the coronavirus, and your test results aren’t back yet, but figure out whether to swing at this 3-2 slider on the black.

There is no room here — none — to blame the players for thinking twice. Last week, when the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross became two of the first to decide they would opt out, I heard from some fans who effectively called them wimps. Made me shudder.

Now, they look not like shrinking violets but rather like leading men. Over the weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander David Price, a five-time all-star and former Cy Young Award winner, became the most prominent player to decline to play. Outfielder Nick Markakis, now with the Atlanta Braves, followed Monday after a talk with teammate Freddie Freeman, who has tested positive and is dealing with symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes,” Markakis told reporters.

By Monday, the players’ eyes were open, and wide. At some point, if the testing efficiency doesn’t improve and players’ confidence in the protocols doesn’t increase, this trickle could feel like an onslaught. The credibility of a two-month season in a sport in which it normally takes six months to determine who makes the playoffs already was up for debate. If the players who opt out grow in both number and stature, there would have to be a further assault on the legitimacy of the season that’s supposed to be 2½ weeks away.

The key phrase there: “supposed to be.” As the pandemic altered the way we live, the entire pursuit of getting back to baseball — or any sport, really — has seemed fraught. Now, it’s not just the positive tests — inevitable but always a concern. It’s the procedures and protocols put in place to ensure that the people providing the product understand themselves and those they’re playing with to be safe.

Right now, MLB is not providing such an environment, not consistently. Whether it can needs to be assessed realistically and honestly in the coming days. If tests are going to take 72 hours — or more — to turn around, say that. Don’t create false expectations.

Baseball is four days into an attempted return. Basketball and hockey haven’t yet fully convened. And in so many ways, we’re right where we were when they all shut down in March: The 2020 season is at risk, and the virus is still the only opponent that matters.