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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on state of baseball during pandemic: 'Players need to be better'

Fan cutouts sit in seats behind home plate

Fan cutouts sit in seats behind home plate at Miller Park in Milwaukee Friday after it was announced that the game between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals was postponed after two Cardinals employees tested positive for coronavirus. Credit: AP / Morry Gash

Major League Baseball wound up at a crossroads this weekend, with postponed games multiplying and new COVID-19 positives, but commissioner Rob Manfred apparently does not intend to shut down the season.

For the time being, anyway.

Because looking beyond the next day’s games is a pointless exercise. And the status of this 60-game schedule changes almost by the hour, as it seemed to do again during another hectic Saturday, with three more Cardinals-Brewers games scratched due to the possibility of an expanding COVID-19 threat among the St. Louis roster. That brought the total to 33 postponed games over virus-related fears in the past week alone.

On Friday, Manfred expressed concerns to union chief Tony Clark that the recent Marlins outbreak, along with league-wide failures regarding the health and safety protocols, could ultimately force him to cancel the season. The commissioner’s objective, a source said, was to get the players on board with tightening up risky behavior that defied social-distancing rules and dangerous off-field activities.

Less than 24 hours later, Manfred made his only public statement, via the Twitter feed of ESPN’s Karl Ravech, and insisted that the sport would plow through the adversity, despite six teams still inactive for a second consecutive day due to disruptions from the coronavirus.

“We are playing,” Manfred told Ravech. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”

Some players seemed to bristle at Manfred laying the blame on them. When the Red Sox’s Jackie Bradley Jr. was asked by the Boston media Saturday if he was worried about a potential shutdown, he said of MLB, “They’ll make it last.”

Did Bradley think that was the right course of action?

“Doesn’t matter what I think,” he said.

Bradley’s exchange came off as a recent example of the lingering disconnect between Manfred and the Players Association, at a time when the two need each other’s cooperation more than ever. The commissioner believes the key to finishing this season lies with the players sticking to the protocols while the players question if enough is being done to protect them.

The Yankees’ James Paxton, who is a member of the union’s eight-player executive subcommittee, stressed the importance of staying on message as a “top-down thing” — with leadership needed to convey the severity of the problem. As for the season being in jeopardy, Paxton tried to remain optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that we can complete the season,” Paxton said. “I think that things need to go well and the protocols need to be taken seriously, from the top down — all through the organizations, everyone coming into the ballpark, and everyone around the players. Chances are, we will get some [positives], but hopefully we can handle those swiftly and not have it mess with the schedule too much.”

That’s what MLB was trying to do Saturday in switching to full damage-control mode. After the Marlins had 20 positives, including 18 players, and were forced to quarantine in Philadelphia for the week, the Cardinals had two players turn up positive for the coronavirus Friday, with MLB announcing that a third was under suspicion, as well as multiple staffers.

MLB also announced that the Phillies, who had been put on pause since their exposure to the Marlins last weekend, did not have any players test positive after multiple tests — an encouraging sign that the virus was unlikely to be transmitted through opponents’ game contact on the field. The Phillies had three staffers come up positive, but MLB said Saturday that two were false positives and it was “unclear” if the third contracted it from the Marlins based on the timing of the test.

Based on those results, the Phillies were officially rescheduled to play a four-game, home-and-home series with the Yankees, set to begin Monday night in the Bronx. Judging by the first week, however, it’s fair to speculate how far the season will make it.

“Yeah, I think everybody wonders, whether it be players or fans or even the league in general,” Brett Gardner said. “But I think that right now, it’s up to us just to focus on today. Take things one day at a time, like we always try to do and be as smart as we can. Then hope that things do get better, the numbers do get better and the things that we’ve seen over the last week are the worst of it.”

On Saturday, some chose not to wait around and see. Marlins infielder Isan Diaz — one of the few on the team who did not test positive — chose to opt out of Miami’s nightmare scenario, which had infected players and staff transported from Philadelphia back to Florida by bus. Also, the Brewers’ Lorenzo Cain became the most prominent name to opt out since the season began, forfeiting a prorated salary of nearly $6 million.

“With all the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time,” Cain said in a statement, “I feel that this is the best decision for me, my wife and our three kids ... Please stay safe.”

The Marlins, as it stands now, are scheduled to resume the season Tuesday in Baltimore, with almost half their roster imported from the taxi squad stationed in Jupiter, Fla. That’s right around the time Tropical Storm Isaias is supposed to arrive at Camden Yards, too.

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