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Rob Manfred's grim warning: MLB season in jeopardy

Cardinals' Daniel Ponce de Leon is removed by

Cardinals' Daniel Ponce de Leon is removed by manager Mike Shildt in fifth inning of 3-0 loss to the Twins on Wednesday in Minneapolis. Cardinals were off Thursday. Credit: AP/Jim Mone

Major League Baseball could be on the brink of surrendering to the coronavirus.

Commissioner Rob Manfred took it upon himself Friday to lay out the grim scenario to union chief Tony Clark as well as the 30 teams, saying the sport will need to be shut down if the health and safety protocols aren’t more closely followed, according to sources.

Manfred’s threat came on the same day that the Brewers’ home opener at Miller Park had to be postponed because two Cardinals players tested positive that morning. It also brought the total to 30 games postponed this week alone, involving eight teams, with the Phillies and Marlins both scratching seven games from the schedule.

Speaking of the Marlins, they had an 18th player test positive Friday — more than half of their 30-man roster — with 20 members of their traveling party overall coming down with COVID-19. As a result, the Marlins had been quarantined in Philadelphia since their series with the Phillies ended Sunday. The team reportedly planned to ship their infected personnel home on buses to Miami, an 18-hour drive, before resuming their schedule up north.

The Phillies also were forced to shut down Citizens Bank Park indefinitely after a member of the coaching staff and a home clubhouse attendant tested positive this week. As of Friday, none of the Phillies’ players came up positive for the coronavirus, the only bit of optimism during an otherwise bleak finish to July.

Before Friday, Manfred had been reluctant to lay out any specific details as to what would cause him to pause or even cancel the 60-game season. MLB’s 108-page pandemic operations manual, which was negotiated with the Players Association, did not include such language, either. Earlier in the week, however, Manfred suggested what could force him to shut it down.

“I think a team losing a number of players that rendered it completely non-competitive would be an issue that we would have to address, and have to think about making a change,” Manfred said during an interview with MLB Network. “Whether that was shutting down a part of the season, the whole season, that depends on the circumstances. 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.”

MLB is rapidly approaching that point, and the Marlins’ outbreak — caused by players’ irresponsible activities during a trip to Atlanta that preceded Philadelphia, according to sources — was an alarming reminder of just how quickly the virus can spiral out of control.

As the Marlins’ number continued to rise, MLB imposed stricter protocols on teams this week, with a renewed clampdown on high-fives and instruction to clubs to add a compliance officer to their traveling party.

With 30 games already postponed, MLB is preparing to concede that playing a full 60-game season just won’t be possible for some teams, which would necessitate relying on winning percentage for playoff seeding. Another nod to that reality happened Friday when MLB announced the use of seven-inning games for doubleheaders, starting Saturday with the Cardinals and Brewers.

It was the Marlins who sparked the leaguewide panic, but Miami is not the only offender. Manfred has been concerned about teams’ conduct overall during the season’s first week. Too many on-field celebrations have defied MLB’s guidelines, and players have not kept socially distanced in common areas, such as the dugout.

Referring to a possible shutdown, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge said, “That’d be tough, especially after how hard we worked to get ready for the season — no matter how many games we were going to play. We’ve been ready to play and ready to go, so to hear that the season could get shut down is pretty upsetting to hear. I don’t know — we’ve got to wait and see. But we’re going to keep doing our part to make sure we all stay safe and stay on the field.”

Right from the start, MLB knew that the fate of this 60-game season could hinge on a single person, but there were no penalties included as deterrents. Instead, the operations manual tried to appeal to their sense of the greater good — which includes the ability to be paid for as long as possible.

“In order for a 2020 season to be conducted safely, covered individuals must exercise care while away from club facilities to avoid situations in which the risk of contracting the virus is elevated, such as participating in activities involving large groups or indoor activities in which people are in close proximity to one another (e.g., crowded restaurants, bars, clubs),” the manual stated. “The careless actions of a single member of the team places the entire team [and their families] at risk.”

The Marlins quickly became Exhibit A for that message, but through those joint negotiations, MLB also agreed that teams cannot formally restrict personnel movement, i.e. imprisoning them in road hotels. Still, Manfred doubled down on those warnings this week, saying that completing this season — and all of the benefits that come from that — might be impossible if the sport’s current trajectory isn’t corrected.

Outside of the Marlins’ dangerous spike, MLB reported somewhat encouraging news on the monitoring testing front this week, with 29 new positives (0.2%) out of 11,895 samples collected. Of those positives, 21 of the 29 were from a single club (the Marlins, obviously). The other 29 teams had eight positives: two major-league players, one alternate-site player and five staff members.

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