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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

If Marlins' COVID-19  outbreak doesn't shut down MLB season, then what will? We won't know until we know

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas on Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: AP/LM Otero

Even with the pandemic’s tightening grip on the United States, I always felt that Major League Baseball should try to play — and keep trying — until it became impossible to do so.

The problem? It was naive to think that everyone would have the same definition of “impossible.’’ And now that the Marlins have been sickened with the sport’s first COVID-19 outbreak, reportedly involving 13 players and staff, the boundaries of what is possible are being stretched again.

“I don’t put this in the nightmare category,” commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday night during an interview on MLB Network. “Obviously, we don’t want any player to get exposed. It’s not a positive thing. But I don’t see it as a nightmare. We built the protocols to allow us to continue to play. That’s why we have the expanded rosters. That’s why we have the pool of additional players.”

Officially, MLB sees the Marlins’ coronavirus flare-up as manageable, and the contingency plans went into effect when Monday’s two games were postponed: their home opener against the Orioles in Miami and Yankees-Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, where the Marlins had just spent the weekend.

As a result, the Yankees stayed put in their Philly hotel while the visitors’ clubhouse was thoroughly fumigated. The four-person staff that tended to the Marlins was placed in quarantine and the Phillies spent Monday getting tested again.

The rest of MLB’s schedule went off as planned, and there was never any consideration of either canceling or suspending the season during the owners’ weekly meeting on Monday. After what they went through to get here, that wasn’t surprising.

“No, there really wasn’t,” Manfred said. “We talked about the situation. I think most of the owners realize that we built protocols anticipating that we would have positive tests at some point during the season. But the protocols were built in order to allow us to continue to play through those positives. And I think there was support for the notion that we believe that the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe.”

But it does beg the question: If a team-wide outbreak involving roughly 30% of the Marlins’ traveling party — with the potential to infect numerous staffers, hotel workers, bus drivers and many others — wasn’t enough to push the pause button on the entire league, what is?

Apparently, Manfred will know impossible when he sees it.

“I think a team losing a number of players that rendered it completely noncompetitive would be an issue that we would have to address and have to think about making a change,” he said. “Whether that was shutting down a part of the season or the whole season, that depends on the circumstances. Same thing with respect to league-wide.”

Until then, brush up on the 108-page operations manual, wear a mask and cross your fingers. The Marlins, however, are not the worst-case scenario. Not yet, anyway. That could involve someone in a high-risk group getting seriously ill.

The Astros’ Dusty Baker, one of the most beloved figures in the game, just turned 71. The Nationals’ Dave Martinez missed three games toward the end of last season because of a heart condition. And speaking of cardiac issues, Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez remains sidelined with myocarditis (heart-muscle inflammation), a known complication of COVID-19, which Rodriguez was just getting over.

Just the thought of traveling down to Miami for this weekend’s Marlins series was enough to rattle an emotional Martinez during Monday’s media session. He already wakes up nervous every morning about his own team’s test results and washes his hands “99 times a day.”

“I’m going to be honest with you — I’m scared,” he said. “I really am . . . Hopefully they make the right decision. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Until the latest rounds of tests come back, MLB can’t pretend to grasp the extent of the Marlins’ outbreak. Even then, as far as the Phillies are concerned, those results won’t offer any guarantees, considering that it can take days after the initial exposure to come up positive.

And what of the Yankees? Should they feel comfortable if MLB gives them the green light to take the field Tuesday night? It’s impossible to know for sure.

New York Sports