Marlins’ virus outbreak tests MLB’s resumption of play

Stephen Tarpley, Miami Marlins pitcher, throws last weekend at a game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thirteen members of the Marlins have tested positive for Covid-19, seriously challenging Major League Baseball's resumption of the 2020 season. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball is facing its greatest challenge yet in its attempt to restart play amid the Covid-19 pandemic after an outbreak among the Miami Marlins has forced game postponements for four teams. 

Positive test results among 13 members of the Marlins organization, including 11 players, forced MLB to postpone the club’s scheduled July 27 home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, as well a second game involving the two teams the following day in Miami. Because of the outbreak, the league also postponed a game involving the Philadelphia Phillies, the Marlins’ opponent this past weekend and who were then slated to play the New York Yankees at home.

MLB, the Marlins, and medical officials are attempting to determine the source of the club’s virus outbreak. But among the working theories are some type of mass contracting of the virus while the Marlins played the Atlanta Braves in exhibition games last week, or over the weekend while playing the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

“After a successful Spring 2.0 [training period], we have now experienced challenges once we went on the road and left Miami,” said Marlins chief executive Derek Jeter. “Postponing [the July 27] home opener was the correct decision to ensure we take a collective pause to try and properly grasp the totality of the situation.”

According to multiple reports and industry sources, the Marlins outbreak involves nine members of the club’s 30-man roster, two taxi squad players, and two staff members. 

Despite Jeter’s comments, further complicating the issue is the Marlins’ home city, county, and state all representing some of the foremost hotspots for Covid-19 in all of the United States. While the team and league awaits additional testing results, the Marlins are self-quarantining in Philadelphia. 

The Marlins’ outbreak raises new questions whether MLB’s market-based resumption of play, as well as the health and safety protocols developed between the league and MLB Players Association, are sufficient to meet the challenge of the pandemic. The single- and dual-site quarantined environments that the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, and Women’s National Basketball Association have implemented have been far more successful in limiting the spread of Covid-19.

But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, speaking on the MLB Network, insisted an outbreak such as this was not only contemplated during planning to restart the season, but can still be managed.

“We expected we were going to have positives at some point in time,” Manfred said. “I remain optimistic that the protocols are strong enough that [they] allow us to continue to play even through an outbreak like this and complete our season.”

Earlier on July 27, Manfred had a scheduled weekly call with team owners. And the commissioner said in that call there remained strong club support for trying to press forward through the current Marlins crisis.

“Most of the owners realize we built protocols anticipating that we would have positive tests,” he said. “There was support for the notion that we believe the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe.”

Manfred further insisted that despite the seriousness of the situation, the outbreak did not represent a “nightmare.”

“Obviously, we don’t want any player to get exposed,” Manfred said. “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. And we think we can keep people safe and continue to play.”

With no Minor League Baseball this season, teams are retaining pools of reserve players beyond their active rosters, allowing them to have ready options for replacing injured or ailing players.

There is not yet a definitive cause identified for the outbreak, though Manfred said MLB “has some theories as to what might have happened.”

Early in the pandemic, MLB did consider a single-site plan similar to what is now occurring with many of the major US-based sports leagues. But even in hindsight, Manfred said numerous logistical issues including the league’s greater overall facility needs and the additional number of games MLB plays would have made a “bubble”-type plan unworkable for baseball.

“I think the decision that we made with respect to the bubble was the right one,” Manfred said. “We’re different than other sports.”

The news, not surprisingly, generated strong reactions around the game. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price, who already has opted out of playing this season, had more critical words for Manfred.

“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” Price tweeted. “Remember when Manfred said players’ health was PARAMOUNT? Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players’ health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and America’s leading immunologist, told CNN that the Marlins situation represented a serious threat to MLB’s resumption efforts.

“This is one of the things that could put a halt in the progress of where you’re going through the season,” said Fauci, whose Topps trading card depicting his first pitch appearance at MLB’s season opener last week set a company sales record. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to continue and hopefully this is an outlier that such a cluster of the players and personnel got infected.”