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MLB’s Covid-19 angst rises even after low initial rates

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (left), who is one of the more notable Major League Baseball players to opt out of the 2020 season. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Even after Major League Baseball received initially hopeful news on Covid-19, the league’s restart efforts this month are still facing heightened pressure from the pandemic.

The league, now beginning team training in advance of a planned resumption of its 2020 season later this month, reported 38 positive tests for the virus out of 3,185 total samples collected and tested. The positive rate of 1.2 per cent compares favorably to initial positive measures for both Major League Soccer and the National Basketball Association.

But MLB’s initial case number did not include every club due to some testing delays. And as club workouts have now begun in local team markets, there have been player complaints about insufficient supplies to help ensure player safety and additional holdups in getting test results. 

“It’s a little bit disorganized,” said Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals reliever. “We’re not getting tests back in time. They still haven’t sent us the [personal protective equipment]. We’re supposed to have N95 masks, stuff like that, gowns, gloves. We’re supposed to have that stuff, we don’t have that stuff. Those are the things it’s going to take for people to stay safe enough for us to continue this season.

On July 6, the Nationals canceled their scheduled workout after not receiving back test results, a day after the Oakland A’s called off a full squad workout for the same reason.

“Per MLB’s protocol, all players and staff were tests for Covid-19 on Friday, July 3. Seventy-two hours later, we have yet to receive the results of those tests,” said Mike Rizzo, Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager. “We cannot have our players and staff work at risk. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff, and their families. Without accurate and timely testing 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.”

And after an initial quartet of MLB players opting out of the upcoming season for health reasons, there have been additional players following suit in recent days. Joining that group were Atlanta Braves pitcher Félix Hernández, free agent pitcher Tyson Ross, and most notably, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price. 

Price, who was to be a key anchor on the starting rotation for a Dodgers team with serious title aspirations after being traded from the Boston Red Sox in February, will forfeit more than $11.8m in salary by not playing this year.

“After considerable thought and discussion with my family and the Dodgers, I have decided it is in the best interest of my health and my family’s health for me to not play this season,” said Price, who has a three-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter. “I will miss my teammates and will be cheering for them throughout the season and on to a World Series victory. I’m sorry I won’t be playing for you this year, but look forward to representing you next year.”

Cleveland Indians bench coach Brad Mills is similarly part of a group of coaches, typically comprising members in more vulnerable older age groups, who are also opting out of working this season.

Doolittle also said he might ultimately opt out, particularly if the stress of trying to play amid the pandemic takes a heavy mental toll.

“It does, like, bring to mind kind of where we’re at in our response to this as a country. Like, we’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people [in the US] We’re way worse off as a country than where we were in March when we shut this thing down. And like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back,” Doolittle said.

“Sports are like the reward of a functional society, and we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve for a little bit, but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive,” he said.

And though US health regulations are generally preventing teams’ disclosure of individual Covid-19 cases, several notable MLB stars have tested positive so far, including New York Yankees infielder D.J. LeMahieu and Braves first baseman Freddy Freeman.

One of the sport’s foremost stars, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, is also openly carrying the weight of whether to play this season. Trout and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child next month. He has been wearing a protective mask during team workouts, and it is not assured he will play once the games begin.

“It’s going to come down to how safe we’re going to be,” Trout said. “If there’s an outbreak, you definitely have to reconsider. There’s a lot of questions. I love baseball, but I have to do what’s right for my family. It’s going to be a tough decision if something happens down the road.”