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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Intake screenings are scary for MLB's fragile restart

Yankees GM Brian Cashman speaks at a press

Yankees GM Brian Cashman speaks at a press conference. Credit: Howard Simmons

When the Mets and Yankees show up Wednesday at their respective ballparks, for the first team assembly in more than three months, some may not be back again for a long time.

Such is life during this COVID-19 pandemic, when the official report date now involves saliva tests for the active virus and blood samples that could contain antibodies, evidence of a past infection.

It’s scary stuff. We’re not talking about the usual spring-training physicals, which occasionally turn up minor irregularities that fortunately turn out to be harmless. Under this new normal, “intake screening” has the potential to reveal devastating results for everyone involved, as well as do damage to the fragile dream of a 60-game season as a whole.

What if a significant number of players test positive? Some undoubtedly will, but how many starts to feel like too many? And with teams suddenly sharing the same spaces again — even with social distancing — MLB’s 108-page operations manual could immediately be put to the test in an effort to extinguish an outbreak.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened already. The Phillies’ complex in Clearwater. The Blue Jays’ facility in neighboring Dunedin. In one week, more than 40 players and staff tested positive, according to USA Today, and a late June wildfire that spurred the shutdown of all the spring-training sites in Florida and Arizona.

Now, the Mets and Yankees are hoping to create a containment zone within their big-league ballparks. Not only to protect against the coronavirus, but also allow them to field a team if a number of these tests turn up positive.

“I think that we will always have some anxiety any time we have testing done,” Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen said Tuesday. “And truthfully, there’s going to be an element of concern and focus every time people come to the ballpark to make sure that our players are healthy.

 “We've seen the NBA results. We’ve got to believe that there will be positive tests that come out of these tests at some point in time. But we'll hope to have as many healthy people in camp as we possibly can.”

The NBA had 16 players test positive (out of 302 screened) during the first wave of mandatory screening for the resumption of the season in Orlando, where the league will enforce a tightly-restricted “bubble” community of hotels around the arena. The NHL has recorded 26 positives since voluntary workouts began June 8, a pool that included more than 250 players and 1,450 tests.

Wednesday marks the first widespread testing for MLB, an event that should cause some sleepless nights for GMs attempting to keep a roster together for the abbreviated quest for a title. At this stage, a few early positives — and we’re referring to asymptomatic, mild, non-injurious cases here — could be overcome, as long as a serious outbreak is avoided. They would cause setbacks in preparation for the player and team, but a GM could probably count on that person’s return for the regular season.

“I think it's just the first phase of many, or the first hurdle of many, that needs to be cleared,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. “And then once we get past that, it's on to the next hurdle, which is getting the group that clears the intake ready — doing everything in our power to prepare them for a championship caliber run. And at the same time, keep them safe and as educated as we possibly can.

“I’m not sure if it's anxiety as much as the big challenge that's going to take all of us involved to do it right.”

Obviously, this is all uncharted territory. So Cashman can only offer a best guess as to how this might shake out. And when it comes to a COVID-19 diagnosis, the rest of us could be left in the dark. As of now, there is no mandate to publicly reveal a positive test, which means a player could just suddenly disappear from the lineup or roster without a given reason.

As Cashman pointed out Tuesday, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to speculate in those scenarios, but raising the question of unsubstantiated health issues certainly is not fair to the player. And for teams, dealing with the unpredictable nature of the virus is going to create numerous complications — perhaps even starting Wednesday.

“The toughest challenge? I think it's just how we're going to handle the pandemic, the COVID environment that we're operating in,” Cashman said. “I think this is all unique and different. We're looking forward to having the opportunities to navigate it and see if we can wind up with something at the very end of it to be very proud of — which is we did it really well, we did it right and we did it with a chance at the championship.”

Day 1 of that process starts Wednesday with a saliva swab that could tell the story of the 2020 season before it even begins.

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