Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, remains quiet...

Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, remains quiet Friday in St. Louis. Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson

A week ago, in the middle of the original Marlins-Phillies-Nats-Yankees-Orioles crisis, what I thought was an obvious question was posed to a baseball official.

You can’t keep overhauling the schedule like this, right?

At the time, Major League Baseball did a commendable job trying to shoehorn all the makeup games into the same number of weeks. The proverbial squeezing 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag. Thirty-three games were in limbo.

First, cycle through all the protocols, clear out the COVID-19 positive members of the roster, summon more players from the alternative sites. Of course, there was the repeat testing, over and over. The standard “abundance of caution” that we keep hearing about.

Even with all that, and MLB’s schedule-makers exhibiting the flexibility of an advanced Bikram yoga class, that didn’t change the harsh reality of the sport’s coronavirus situation.

No, the official said. We can’t keep doing this.

Yet, here we are a week later, and MLB is being forced to do the same things again. The Marlins, who had more than half of their roster test positive, are back playing, and doing quite well with a shocking 7-1 start after Friday’s win over the Mets.

The lights inside an empty Busch Stadium, home of the...

The lights inside an empty Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, remain off Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in St. Louis. Major League Baseball announced Friday night that a three-game series between the Chicago Cubs and Cardinals set for this weekend in St. Louis has been postponed after two more Cardinals players and a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson

The problem now is the Cardinals.

Maybe it’s unfair to say, but MLB’s virus problem didn’t seem to be quite as serious when the Marlins had to be taken out of circulation. That’s because they’re the Marlins, No. 30 out of 30.

Never mind that one team removed, like a Jenga piece, can have the same effect on the league, no matter where they rank in importance. We saw how the rest of the schedule collapsed as a result.

But the Cardinals? Now we’re getting into MLB’s elite group, one of roughly six clubs that matter when it comes to national TV ratings for an otherwise ultra-regional sport. So when the Cardinals reported more infected personnel Friday — bringing their total to nine players and seven staffers — MLB no longer could pin all of their COVID woes on the Marlins.

The opener of the Chicago Cubs' three-game series with the...

The opener of the Chicago Cubs' three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium Friday has been postponed after another positive COVID-19 test from the Cardinals clubhouse came out. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images/TNS) Credit: TNS/Dilip Vishwanat

This new round of infections immediately postponed another weekend series, and one of baseball’s greatest rivalries, considering that the Cubs were in St. Louis. Not only were those three games wiped out, but the Cardinals have no idea when they might resume their schedule.

To date, St. Louis has played a total of five games and none since July 29. As it stands now, the Cardinals are facing the prospect of cramming in 55 games over 48 days, but they still have to determine if the rosterwide spread has been contained.

“I don’t know what your future looks like at this point,” Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday during a conference call with the media. “For all the optimism we had a couple of days ago, it’s frustrating for everyone involved.”

Mozeliak was referring to a two-day stretch during the past week when the Cardinals had no new positives and believed they were in the clear, despite the virus claiming key players, such as Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong and Carlos Martinez. That reprieve didn’t last very long, however, and the new cases popped up shortly after MLB had just issued another round of stricter protocols to teams.

Mandatory masks at all times when not playing and compliance officers staking out hotel lobbies are two of the headliners. Will they work? Put it this way: They couldn’t hurt. It was just last weekend that commissioner Rob Manfred — inside of 24 hours — went from suggesting MLB was on the verge of a shutdown to switching his tone to full-speed ahead, saying he’s “not a quitter.”

Manfred seems to have plowed right into another brick wall with the Cardinals’ escalation, and as long as positives remain difficult to root out completely, there’s no telling the scope of this outbreak.

“The reality is, we don’t know where this is headed,” Mozeliak said. “No matter how much you think you understand and hear things about incubation or how long somebody may or may not be contagious, these are really difficult things. No matter how many experts you engage, you are still getting a lot of different answers. With all the decisions we make, it’s almost like the goal line keeps moving ... I don’t know what tomorrow looks like. Nobody does.”

The Cardinals outbreak will eventually get under control, just as the Marlins did. Even when teams do return to the field, however, MLB already is coping with a deepening quagmire on many a front, including from a competitive standpoint. The league has been forced to alter a few rules on the fly to handle so many postponements. The irony of it all? The stockpiling number of games will actually translate to fewer innings for some clubs because of the radical implementation of seven-inning doubleheaders.

Look at the NL East. After the Phillies were rained out Friday, that forced the scheduling of another doubleheader for Sunday, their fifth in the coming weeks (after already splitting Thursday’s twin bill with the Yankees). That means nearly 20 percent of their remaining games will be seven innings, presumably a major advantage for teams with a suspect bullpen; the Phillies’ relief corps is last in the NL with a 7.89 ERA.

In the future, MLB needs to seriously consider going to seven-inning games, and not just for doubleheaders, because pace-of-play initiatives aren’t working. But it obviously has to be a comprehensive rule change for everyone, not just for those swamped with makeup games, like a growing number of teams.

Manfred & Co. are trying whatever they can to keep this season afloat, and those desperate measures are going to create an uneven playing field. We’ve come to learn there’s no avoiding that. They just have to hope the things out of their control — such as the virus taking down the Cardinals again this week — won’t ultimately make that impossible.


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