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Scott Lauber: MLB couldn't do a bubble. Will new stricter protocols save the season from a coronavirus crisis?

Scott Lauber: MLB couldn't do a bubble. Will new stricter protocols save the season from a coronavirus crisis?

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Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game 6 of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals on October 29, 2019, at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game 6 of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals on October 29, 2019, at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Tim Warner/Getty Images/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA - Rob Manfred sat in an MLB Network studio Monday night - with 13 members of the Miami Marlins' traveling party infected by COVID-19 and holed up in a Rittenhouse Square hotel, but no recent positive tests involving any of the other 29 teams - and stated with confidence that the situation didn't represent a "nightmare" scenario for Major League Baseball.

The commissioner was right. In pandemic baseball, things can always get worse.

On cue, over the ensuing days, the Marlins' coronavirus contagion spread to 20 people, including 18 of the 33 players on the roster last weekend in Philadelphia. Three Phillies employees (one coach and two clubhouse attendants, one in each locker room) tested positive, prompting the closure of Citizens Bank Park. Fifteen games were postponed, including Friday night in Milwaukee, after test results came back positive for two players with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.

If this still isn't a nightmare, Manfred must at least be sleeping with one eye open.

Manfred realizes he may have to suspend the season, if not cancel it altogether, and according to ESPN, he told Players Association executive director Tony Clark as much on Friday. Additional positive tests over the weekend could force a decision.

The scheduling issues alone are enough to keep Manfred up at night. Can the Phillies, for instance, reasonably be expected to play Monday night at Yankee Stadium after holding one organized practice in five days? If so, they would still have to play 57 games in 56 days to complete a 60-game schedule. That seems far-fetched even with a slew of doubleheaders featuring seven-inning games, a rule agreed to Thursday by MLB and the players' union.

(Side note: Seven-inning games would be one way for the Phillies to minimize the impact of a bullpen that went from a training-camp concern to a train wreck in the first weekend of the season.)

But every team doesn't have to play 60 games. Phillies manager Joe Girardi is advocating for playoff spots to be determined by winning percentage. It happened that way because of work stoppages in 1981 and 1972, and it probably will happen again - if baseball can even reach the finish line.

And that brings us to the overriding question after a troubling week.


Optimism within baseball grew as the rate of infection dropped throughout training camp. During the intake-screening process, MLB reported 66 positive tests (58 players, eight staff) out of 3,748 samples, a 1.8% rate. From that point through last Friday, MLB reported 29 positive tests (22 players, seven staff) out of 28,888 samples, a 0.1% rate.

But that was before the season opened, when teams were mostly contained in their home cities and playing intrasquad games. As Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said on July 22, "There's still going to be some uncertainty as we start to travel and play real games against different teams in different cities."

Those concerns have turned out to be legitimate, which begs the question of whether MLB was wise to stage a season with teams based in their home ballparks and traveling regionally between cities rather than adopting the "bubble" model used by the NBA, WNBA, and MLS or the NHL's "hub cities" approach. The NFL, which is also planning to keep teams in home markets, is surely paying close attention to baseball's predicament.

All along, many health experts believed the "bubble" offered a better chance for success. In May, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested a gradual approach to returning to the field that began in a quarantined environment and expanded outward.

MLB flirted with the bubble concept in the spring. One idea involved isolating all 30 teams in Arizona and playing games at Chase Field in Phoenix and a dozen nearby spring-training facilities. Another brainstorm called for an Arizona/Florida split, with teams using spring-training facilities. A third would have brought Texas into the mix and established hub cities.

Those ideas were met with resistance from players who didn't want to leave their families during a pandemic.

But there were other reasons why a baseball bubble was impractical. Arizona is oppressively hot in the summer, especially for outdoor games. Unlike the NBA and NHL, which will swiftly eliminate teams from their bubbles as the playoffs begin, MLB would've needed to quarantine 30 teams - at least 900 players, plus coaches and staff - for more than three months.

COVID-19 wouldn't have cooperated, either. Over the last few months, the virus has spiked in Arizona, Florida, and Texas.

"We would've had to have multiple locations probably just in order to have enough facilities to make it work," Manfred said in his MLB Network interview. "The numbers of people involved and the numbers of people to support the number of players was much, much larger in our sport. The duration would've been much longer, and the longer you go, the more people you have, the less likely it is that you can make the bubble work.

"I think the NBA and the NHL have an advantage - smaller number of players, shorter period of time. I understand why they did what they did. I'm just not sure it was workable for us."

Baseball is left, then, to press forward, leaning on its 113-page health and safety protocols and making adjustments along the way. Two changes after the Marlins' outbreak: MLB will mandate surgical masks instead of cloth masks during travel, and every team will appoint a compliance officer - a hall monitor, of sorts - to make sure members of the traveling party follow the rules.

"I think this is a great wake-up call, and I think baseball will probably pay more attention to it," Girardi said in an MLB Network Radio interview last week. "I hope so. Because you've seen what happened to the Marlins."

MLB officials wanted to believe the Marlins' outbreak was a one-team problem that could be easily dealt with. Isolate the infected players, have the Marlins replace them on the roster with others from the player pool, monitor the Phillies with daily testing, and move on.

But that proved to be wishful thinking after the Phillies' positive tests, the team's first since intake screening at the outset of training camp.

The Cardinals' positive tests might have wide-ranging ripple effects, too. The players reportedly were tested before Wednesday's game in Minnesota. After the Cardinals left town, the Cleveland Indians moved into the visiting clubhouse at Target Field on Thursday for a four-game series against the Twins.

At least MLB seems to have learned from the Marlins' mess. While the Marlins played last Sunday in Philadelphia despite three players receiving positive test results the night before, the Cardinals weren't allowed to take the field Friday to "allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted," MLB said in a statement.

That's progress. But it isn't difficult to see where this could go and what might happen next.

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