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Mission: Impossible? Not yet as Manfred's plan aims to beat long odds for MLB's return

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

Major League Baseball has been shut down for 65 days (and counting) because of the coronavirus outbreak. The final pitch of spring training was delivered on March 12, and since that date — which feels like a decade ago — the sport’s mission hasn’t changed.

Rob Manfred & Co. were going to try to play baseball until it became impossible to do so.

At times during these past two-plus months, impossible has felt uncomfortably close, like a 98-mph fastball under the chin. But when Manfred was interviewed on CNN on Thursday night, the commissioner made baseball sound possible, maybe even probable, depending on how far he (i.e. ownership) is willing to bend for the Players Association regarding the economic issues.

Judging by his COVID-19 plan, Manfred already has made a few concessions on the public-health front. MLB’s strategy for handling a player who tests positive will not result in a 14-day quarantine for those exposed. Instead, the sport will rely on rapid testing to screen that at-risk group, then isolate the infected personnel.

The hope is that MLB can successfully extract a player who tests positive, prevent a bigger outbreak and continue on with the schedule, uninterrupted.

To some degree, it’s a dice roll. Rapid tests have come under fire lately amid allegations of inaccuracy, so that could be a trap door.

By comparison, the Korean Baseball Organization, which started on May 5, intends to have a 144-game season, but the entire league will halt play for three weeks if a player tests positive. Manfred certainly realizes that an 82-game season and expanded 14-team playoff won’t survive long delays like that.

During Thursday’s interview, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical expert, followed up a question on testing with the assumption that MLB would require the standard two-week quarantine measure as well. Manfred’s response surprised him.

“Our experts are advising us that we don’t need a 14-day quarantine,” Manfred said. “What we will do is the positive individual will be removed from the rest of the group. There will be a quarantine arrangement in each facility and in each city, and then we’ll do contact tracing for the individuals that we believe there was contact with. We will do point-of-care testing for those individuals to minimize the likelihood that there’s been a spread.”

That sticks out as one of the more radical aspects of MLB’s return-to-play blueprint, if only because it tries to balance the schedule with pandemic concerns. We don’t know if that strategy will work because none of this has been tried before. No league has ever needed to transform its own drug labs into a COVID-19 testing facility, as Manfred said was done with MLB’s plant in Utah to allow for multiple tests per week.

This is all part of attempting to do what feels like the impossible. But if the Players Association ultimately signs off on these health-and-safety protocols, we’ll get to see if MLB’s pioneering efforts are more than a paper fantasy.

“Nothing is risk-free in this undertaking,” Manfred said. “We’re trying to mitigate that risk with the repeated point-of-care testing to make sure that people who have had contact have not been exposed, and by obviously removing those individuals that have a positive test, they will be quarantined until they have two negative tests over a 24-hour period.”

Manfred seemingly had all the answers Thursday, citing an “extraordinarily detailed” 80-page manual that MLB is using as its COVID-19 playbook, which covers everything from disinfecting charter planes to cordoning off clubhouses.

But it’s not Anderson Cooper he has to convince. It’s Tony Clark’s union ranks, and one person familiar with the talks said there are “monumental challenges” to overcome to play games under the constant COVID-19 threat.

As if combating the virus isn’t enough, Manfred and Clark are engaging in a two-front war, although the commissioner chose a more diplomatic way to describe the battle over the players’ salaries. He offered a more optimistic outlook.

“I think that whenever there’s a discussion about economics publicly, people tend to characterize it as a fight,” he said. “ . . . I have great confidence that we’ll reach an agreement with the Players Association. Both that it’s safe to come back to work and work out the economic issues that need to be resolved.”

That’s a lot to get done before a game is even played — and then the potential for things to go sideways will really skyrocket. But we’re still clinging to that “possible’’ stage, in which the belief is that baseball can be played this summer. Until someone, or something, finally shows that it can’t.

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