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Coronavirus is knocking MLB teams out of the park. What happens when playoffs start?

Members of the St. Louis Cardinals wait to be introduced before the start of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Seven players on the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the team to postpone their four-game series with the Detroit Tigers this week.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

We’ll get to the part about bars and casinos and strip clubs in a bit, but first the news.

After coronavirus outbreaks on two teams and fears of an outbreak on a third team, Major League Baseball belatedly landed on a cautionary standard: If there is an outbreak on a team, or reason to suspect one, shut down that team for a week. The virus works its way through a clubhouse on its schedule, not on a baseball schedule.

The Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies did their time. The St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of theirs. Maybe those teams make up that week of games. Maybe not. Play 55 games or play 60, no big deal either way.

In eight weeks, the playoffs are supposed to start, with 16 teams in a tightly scheduled first round. Two days, or three, and the winner advances. And that’s when the coronavirus protocol could go haywire.

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Let’s say the Dodgers secure the top seed in the National League, and the Milwaukee Brewers get the bottom seed. And let’s say two Dodgers players test positive before the first game, at a time MLB cannot put its schedule on hold for a week. Would that be the end of the Dodgers’ season, and would the virus essentially give the Brewers a bye into the division series?

“Respect the virus,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Monday.

Mattingly wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. He was talking about his own team, or what is left of it. The Marlins’ outbreak infected 18 players — all with mild symptoms, or none at all, according to the team, and all expected back before the end of the season.

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On Monday, the Marlins announced 15 additions to their 30-man roster: seven from the minor leagues, two from the injured list, three from the waiver wire, two from trades, and one from free agency.

“Some of the guys,” Mattingly said, “I’ve never met.”

Derek Jeter could have been bathing in the glow of his Hall of Fame induction, originally scheduled for late last month, a reward for a decorated and dignified career. Instead, the Marlins’ chief executive conducted a video call in which he defended his players against what he said were “rumors” they had triggered an outbreak by engaging in what he called “salacious activity.”

The Marlins played exhibition games in Atlanta before opening the season in Philadelphia, where the first positive test results were detected. Before traveling to Atlanta, the Marlins completed three weeks of training in Miami, a hot spot for the virus, with no players testing positive.

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“Some of our traveling party had a false sense of security,” Jeter said.

The MLB health and safety protocol asks players not to leave the team hotel, except to go to the ballpark.

Miami Marlins teammates Jonathan Villar, Jesus Aguilar and Jon Berti wait to bat during a team scrimmage.
Miami Marlins teammates (from left) Jonathan Villar, Jesus Aguilar and Jon Berti wait to bat during a team scrimmage on July 12. Jeter says a “false sense of security” with people in the team’s travelling party led to a coronavirus outbreak among players and staff.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

“We had guys leave to get coffee, to get clothes. A guy left to have dinner at a teammate’s house,” Jeter said after the team and league investigated. “There were no other guests on site. There was no salacious activity. There was no hanging out in bars. No clubs. No running around in Atlanta. No running around the town.

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“What it boiled down to on this particular trip was, guys were around each other, they relaxed, and they let their guard down. They were getting together in groups. They weren’t wearing masks as much as they should have. They weren’t social distancing.”

The Cardinals, whose trip to Milwaukee shifted from a weekend series to a week-long quarantine, have reported seven players testing positive. Dodgers broadcaster Jerry Hairston Jr. tweeted that a few Marlins had gone to a club and a few Cardinals had gone to a casino, but Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said he has found no evidence to support Hairston’s assertion.

“There is inherent risk, and the reality is we’re in a pandemic,” Mozeliak told reporters. “Would it make it easier if we said, ‘Oh, somebody went to a strip club’?”

The Phillies had no players test positive, but they sat out a week because they shared a field with the Marlins more than a week ago, at a time the league knew four Miami players had been infected. The week was needed to see whether the infection had skipped into the Phillies’ clubhouse, meaning they lost a week because of the complacency of Marlins players.

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“We followed all of the health and safety protocols,” Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen told The Athletic. “We knew that was important. We understood that’s what we needed to do to be able to play this game. . . . It was very upsetting that we did everything right, and we were still the ones paying for it.”

Two-way player Shohei Ohtani was diagnosed Monday with a strained right elbow and won’t pitch until mid-September at the earliest. However, he could DH soon.

Jeter denied the suggestion that the Marlins played that game because their players voted to do so. He said the league was aware of the positive tests and a committee jointly run by the league and players’ union decided to proceed.

“What games are played and canceled are not up to us,” Jeter said.

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Since then, the league has tightened its protocols, shutting down teams with positive tests, adding a compliance officer for each team charged with monitoring the behavior of players on the road and keeping them within the team hotel, and urging that masks be worn off the field and away from the ballpark.

This might be easier within a bubble, but MLB players were reluctant to commit to isolate away from their families all summer, for perhaps months longer than NBA and NHL players. But a lacrosse league returned in a bubble, and it all worked well until the semifinals. Two teams had positive tests, and so the championship was played not by the two semifinal winners, but by the two uninfected teams.

In a scenario like that, could the virus knock the Dodgers out of the playoffs? The league office couldn’t say for sure Monday. The Cardinals listed four new players as testing positive Monday, and there was yet another immediate crisis, on Day 12 of a season full of them.


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