Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak won’t derail MLB’s just-opened season — at least not yet

For now, the outbreak among members of the Miami Marlins — with 11 players and two coaches testing positive by Monday, according to an official familiar with the testing — has not brought down the entire MLB season, and MLB officials hoped the outbreak would be limited to the Marlins, allowing the season to go forward.

“We expected we were going to have positives at some point in time,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday in an interview on MLB Network. “I remain optimistic that the protocols are strong enough that it will allow us to continue to play, even through an outbreak like this, and complete our season.”

MLB postponed the Marlins’ home opener scheduled for Monday night against the Baltimore Orioles at Miami’s Marlins Park, as well as that night’s scheduled game in Philadelphia between the Phillies, who hosted the Marlins over the weekend, and New York Yankees.

While MLB officials stressed the outbreak was limited to just one team, other teams, including the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves, have experienced multiple positive tests or symptomatic players in recent days. And if an outbreak spreads across one team, it increases the likelihood of the virus being transmitted to an opponent or — in the case of the Yankees, who were about to use the same visiting clubhouse at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park that the Marlins just vacated — potentially a third team as well.

Ten other MLB games scheduled for Monday went forward as expected (though one was eventually rained out), but the Marlins remained under self-quarantine at their Philadelphia hotel awaiting results of teamwide coronavirus tests.

In his interview with MLB Network, Manfred said the Marlins would not play Monday or Tuesday night but were still aiming to play as scheduled in Baltimore against the Orioles on Wednesday and Thursday. “We’re doing some additional testing,” he said. “If the testing results are acceptable, the Marlins will resume play in Baltimore on Wednesday against the Orioles.” After their two games in Baltimore, the Marlins are scheduled to return to Miami to host the Washington Nationals for three games beginning Friday.

“Hopefully they make the right decision. That’s all I’m going to say,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Monday when asked about the prospect of taking his team to Miami this weekend. “My level of concern went from an eight to a 12.”

As a bellwether for the feasibility of big-time professional sports amid a pandemic — at least in a nation struggling to contain the virus, and outside a “bubble” model designed to protect participants within a strict quarantine environment — the developments Monday in baseball were ominous.

“This is off-the-charts bad,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford College of Emory University. “This was always my concern. I anticipated an outbreak on a team, especially on a team from a city with a high incidence of the virus. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised to see it happened to a team from Miami.”

However, baseball’s experience over the past few days — launching a 60-game season starting four months after its original Opening Day and played entirely without fans — presents a sobering outlook for the NFL and college football, both of which hope to play full seasons without bubbles and without the inherent social distancing that baseball, at least theoretically, provides.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to fans Monday that the league hopes to have “a healthy and complete 2020 season,” and Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said in a phone interview that he remained “cautiously optimistic” about the NFL season but realized that “this is going to be hard.”

“Even though we don’t anticipate that it’s going to disappear overnight, are there ways that we can learn to coexist and still take on some semblance of our normal activities while keeping the virus at bay?” Sills said. “I think that’s a really important goal for everyone, not just for the NFL and professional sports or sports in general. But that’s what all of us in society are looking to.”

Baseball’s 113-page 2020 operations manual — containing the health and safety protocols designed to prevent precisely what has happened with the Marlins — covers issues ranging from testing frequency (every other day for most personnel), social distancing (players spaced apart in the dugout) and hygiene (no spitting allowed). But it does not define the standard by which MLB would halt the season, a power that rests with Manfred.

“I think that a team losing a number of players that rendered it completely noncompetitive would be an issue that we would have to address and have to think about making a change — whether that was shutting down a part of the season, the whole season, that depends on the circumstances,” Manfred said on MLB Network. “Same thing with respect to leaguewide. You get to a certain point leaguewide where it does become a health threat, and we certainly would shut down at that point.”

Other teams across MLB viewed the Marlins’ outbreak as a wake-up call to tighten their own behavior in the dugout and on the field: follow social distancing guidelines, avoid high-fives, wear masks.

“Quite frankly, it’s something we have to do a better job of here, too,” Seattle Mariners Manager Scott Servais said in a Zoom interview with reporters. “We’re saying all the right stuff, [but] we have to do the right thing. Sometimes you let your emotions get in the way and you just react. But we do have to be smart.”

Teams were allotted 30-man active rosters this year, four more than previously allotted, and 30-man satellite rosters to ride out a potential outbreak — which means the Marlins, theoretically, could field a team for its upcoming games made up of a combination of unaffected players from their big league roster and reserves from their alternative site in nearby Jupiter, Fla.

However, Binney said his recommendation is that MLB shut down the Marlins for two weeks and the Phillies for five days “and hope you don’t have a broader problem.”

“I don’t put this in the ‘nightmare’ category,” Manfred said of Monday’s news. “Obviously, we don’t want any player to get exposed; it’s not a positive thing. But I don’t see it as a nightmare. We built the protocols to allow us to continue to play. That’s why we have the expanded rosters. That’s why we have the pools of additional players. And we think we can keep people safe and continue to play.”

Like most teams, the Marlins, following a three-week training camp at their home stadium, began traveling last week, playing a pair of exhibition games in Atlanta. After the first of those games, Marlins Manager Don Mattingly decried the lack of available space in which to take cover from rain that fell throughout the game.

“We had all these guys and nowhere to go,” Mattingly told reporters in a Zoom interview. “Then we’ve got a zillion guys in the dugout — so there’s no way we’re social distancing.”

By the time the Marlins opened the regular season Friday night in Philadelphia, at least one Marlins player, catcher Jorge Alfaro, was believed to have already tested positive — although the team, per MLB protocols and privacy concerns, did not reveal the positive test.

Rather than fly home after the game, an 11-6 Miami win, the Marlins decided to remain in Philadelphia overnight as they awaited the results of teamwide coronavirus testing and contact tracing. When the test results came back Monday morning, they revealed the additional positive tests.

“After a successful [camp], we have now experienced challenges once we went on the road and left Miami,” Marlins chief operating officer Derek Jeter, the Hall of Fame former shortstop, said in a statement Monday. “Postponing [Monday night’s] home opener was the correct decision to ensure we take a collective pause and try to properly grasp the totality of this situation. We have conducted another round of testing for our players and staff, and our team will all remain in Philadelphia pending the results of those tests, which we expect later [Monday].”

Rather than a bubble, MLB has pinned its hopes for 2020 largely on its testing regimen, with most personnel tested every other day and those results being turned around within 24 to 48 hours. In the latest round of testing data released by MLB on Friday, there had been only 10 players who had newly tested positive over the previous two weeks.

However, because of the lag time before test results can be learned and the incubation period of the virus, one fear expressed by epidemiologists was that an infected but asymptomatic player could spread the virus to his teammates before realizing he was a carrier. Each of those 10 positive cases, in other words, was a potential vector for the virus.

“I can’t believe they played that game [Sunday],” Binney said. “Four cases should have been enough to cancel it.”

The fate of the MLB season, and that of all American sports to one degree or another, is tied into the fate of the U.S. response to the coronavirus. With the country adding 60,000 to 70,000 new cases each day, it is perhaps not a surprise its sports leagues would have a difficult time pulling off their seasons.

While the Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea launched its season in early May and is now playing in stadiums at 70 percent capacity, and while Germany’s Bundesliga soccer league last month wrapped up its 2019-20 season using a similar model to the one being tried by MLB, those countries were far more successful in defeating the virus than the U.S.

“We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said this month. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”

Baseball officials, the stewards of a sport that is both a national pastime and an $11 billion-per-year industry, believed they could thread a 60-game season through the complex fabric of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Just five days in, that now looks like a monumental task, and the 2020 baseball season has reached its first crisis point.

Mark Maske contributed to this report.