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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB must reach perfection with its COVID-19 testing

A heart is visible in center field with

A heart is visible in center field with the letters "DC" at Washington Nationals stadium in Washington on Friday. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

Major League Baseball doesn’t get partial credit when it comes to COVID-19 testing. This is a pass/fail situation.

They said Monday that 98% of the league was processed in accordance with the sport’s health and safety protocols, but that isn’t good enough. There is no A for effort here. That missing 2% earns them an F.

Waiting to hear back from the Salt Lake City lab on 86 samples from a total of 3,740 taken during the intake screening might not seem like a colossal foul-up for the early days of summer camp. But it was enough to shut down the Astros and Nationals and further delay the Athletics, who had yet to begin their workouts.

That can’t happen. We realize this has never been attempted before, but in order for baseball to be played amid this pandemic, MLB’s ambitious testing program has to deliver on its promise to the people accepting all the risk. Otherwise, this becomes reduced to a dangerous folly.

Saliva and blood samples sitting in airports doesn’t fly as an excuse. The Fourth of July shouldn’t sneak up on anybody. Alternate plans have to be made. And with teams limited to only three weeks to prepare for the 60-game season, they can’t afford to lose a day because of shipping blunders.

“The vast majority of those deliveries occurred without incident and allowed the protocols to function as planned,” MLB said Monday in a statement. “Unfortunately, several situations included unforeseen delays. We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence. We commend the affected clubs that responded properly by canceling workouts.”

What choice did the teams have? Without knowing the status of their personnel, it would have been tragically irresponsible to let everyone back inside the ballparks. If one positive slips through the cracks in this system, the potential outbreak could not only doom the season but create a medical disaster that might stretch beyond the stadiums.

Under these scenarios, baseball GMs are akin to public-health officials, and the Nationals’ Mike Rizzo underscored the gravity of the problem Monday with his own statement.

“Per MLB’s protocol, all players and staff were tested for COVID-19 on Friday, July 3rd. Seventy-two hours later, we have yet to receive the results of those tests,” Rizzo said. “We cannot have our players and staff work at risk. Therefore, we have canceled our team workout scheduled for [Monday] morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families.

“Without accurate and timely testing, it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 season are at risk.”

The players already are on edge. The Braves’ Nick Markakis became the eighth to opt out Monday after Felix Hernandez and David Price bailed over the weekend. Markakis attributed his decision to a troubling conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, who currently is battling COVID-19 himself.

“Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” Markakis told reporters Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

No one was going into this blind. But it was a calculated gamble, based on the parameters outlined by a 108-page operations manual. Those protocols call for an active-virus test every two days, with those results reported from the Salt Lake City lab within 24 to 48 hours. It’s a bold experiment on MLB’s part, but the entire operation relies on that testing chain functioning properly.

Just this weekend, test administrators reportedly failed to show up for the Yankees and Angels, forcing the two teams to submit their own saliva for screening.

While MLB acknowledged the early missteps, it also emphasized that “nearly all of the individuals had been tested as planned.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone didn’t sound too concerned Monday about the program to this point.

“We’re confident in the protocols we have in place,” he said. “We also feel like nothing’s perfect and nothing we do is perfect, but we do feel like the protocols we have in place are giving us the best chance to be safe. Each day that we’re here, there’s risk involved in that. That’s why, as best we can, we’re trying to mitigate that. I feel like we have a good system set up in place to do that. And hopefully over time, it proves its mettle.”

Normally, we’d agree with Boone. But the pandemic doesn’t allow for near-perfection. And the players aren’t going to settle for MLB’s best effort in trying to keep them safe. Anything short of a passing grade with these testing protocols is going to result in an epic fail.

New York Sports