Sports

Early Virus Scares Kept the M.L.B. Season on Track

ARLINGTON, Texas — It is a memorable image of nearly every World Series opener: The members of each team standing shoulder to shoulder along the baselines, the players in the lineup announced one by one, the managers shaking hands over home plate. A celebrity belts out the national anthem while dozens of people clutch the edges of a giant American flag stretched across the outfield.

None of that happened at the beginning of the 116th World Series, between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays, at Globe Life Field on Tuesday. Even the ceremonial first pitch was delivered in the middle of the outfield, a safe social distance from the pitcher’s mound. The anthem played, but only on the scoreboard. The lineup announcements had all the majesty of a midweek game in April.

“We’re so close to the end here, and I think the feeling is we just don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that,” Dr. Gary Green, Major League Baseball’s medical director, said in an interview. “In the regular season, you did have some flexibility in terms of doubleheaders, or you could move games to the other team’s site, or you could reschedule games — you can’t do that now. If we had an outbreak and we had to stop for a week or two weeks, that would really just kind of ruin the whole postseason.”

Dr. Green spoke on Thursday, between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series. The next morning, M.L.B. made its weekly announcement of coronavirus test results — a source of dread weeks ago, now a source of pride. The 3,597 monitoring samples collected and tested in the previous week had yielded zero new positives, the league said, and no player had tested positive for 54 days.

In all, there have been 91 new positives — 57 players and 34 staff members — among the 172,740 tests conducted this season, or 0.05 percent. For a league that weathered early outbreaks of 18 positive tests for Miami Marlins players and 10 for St. Louis Cardinals players, it has been a remarkable turnaround that essentially saved the season.

“I’ll appreciate everyone that made this possible for as long as I live,” Rays starter Charlie Morton said, adding later: “It’s weird to go to the stadium and not see the parking lots just filled with people and local TV crews just hanging out, you name it. It’s weird, it’s sad — but it’s still very exciting.”

That is a fitting tagline for this season: weird, sad, but very exciting. There were no fans in the stands, except for limited crowds at the National League Championship Series and the World Series, where the Game 1 attendance — 11,388 — was the lowest since Game 6 in 1909, when Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner roamed Bennett Park in Detroit. But the games went on, and the intensity was real.

ImageLimited fans were allowed back into the ballpark for the National League Championship Series and, above, the World Series.
Credit…Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“I don’t know if you watched Game 7 last night, but it sure felt like the postseason to me,” the Dodgers’ Justin Turner said after the N.L.C.S. when a reporter wondered if the games had the usual October emotion. “The back-and-forth, the momentum shifts, big plays, big swings, big pitches — that was as much of a playoff feel as I’ve ever experienced.”

Elsewhere, a brutal off-season has already begun, with even big-market teams like the Chicago Cubs initiating dozens of layoffs. After a year of reduced revenue, owners may be reluctant to spend big on players in free agency, which could raise tensions between the league and the players’ union as they enter the final year of their collective bargaining agreement.

But for now, the sides can celebrate the shared achievement of staging a season — even with a schedule of just 60 regular-season games and neutral sites for three postseason rounds — in 30 ballparks (including one minor league stadium) during a pandemic.

“The biggest thing that’s gotten us through is flexibility and dealing with uncertainty,” Dr. Green said. “Sports thrive on certainty and routines, and for players, what time they get to the ballpark, everything they go through for their pregame and postgame — well, we’ve disrupted all of that. Some teams didn’t find out their game was rescheduled or canceled until right before the game, and yet they’ve still been able to focus on playing and doing all the things they need to.”

The Marlins’ season took a week’s hiatus after only three games, and the Cardinals missed 16 days after playing only five games. Both teams rallied to make the expanded playoffs, and with creative scheduling — including seven-inning games for doubleheaders — all but two Cardinals games were played.

Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

During the Cardinals’ absence, baseball tightened health and safety protocols, expanding mask requirements for players and staff members, restricting the places players could visit outside the ballpark and instructing compliance officers to monitor clubhouses and team hotels. The feeling of being locked down wore on some players.

“I like to go out and clear my mind, because baseball is hard; if you always think about baseball, you’re going to go crazy,” Rays shortstop Willy Adames said. “And if you’re going bad, you need some fresh air, you need some distraction, go have dinner and you distract your mind. That’s been the hardest part for some of us young guys: We like to do all that kind of stuff, and obviously all those protocols we’ve got to follow, they’re hard. You’ve got to adjust to it.”

The players did, and just as important as the new rules, Dr. Green said, was the sobering example from the Marlins and the Cardinals of just how precarious the season could be.

“One of the things we’ve seen with the virus, not only with baseball but throughout society, is it really can find gaps in your coverage,” Dr. Green said. “We were very lucky in the beginning that we didn’t have very many positive cases, and then all of a sudden we had these outbreaks, and I think people realized: ‘Hey, these things are there for a reason, and any deviation from that can potentially really wreck the whole season.’ So that was a wake-up call.”

Dr. Green also said that M.L.B.’s ability to use its own laboratory in Utah to analyze test samples turned out to be critical because the methodology was consistent and the lab was able to validate a saliva test.

“The nasal swabs are not very comfortable,” he said, “and if you’re talking about testing people every other day during the season and every day during the postseason, the saliva test is a much more palatable way to do that.”

Players had a powerful financial incentive to follow the rules. Their 2020 salaries were prorated based on the truncated schedule, meaning that they made roughly 37 percent of their anticipated income before the pandemic. The shared sacrifice, and the especially close proximity to one another — particularly before families were allowed into the postseason secure zones — brought some teams closer together.

“I know we haven’t been able to be around family, but I feel like this team is family,” said the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts. “We spend so much time together at the hotel, here at the field, and nobody gets tired of each other — we’re all laughing, joking. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to call family, man, it’s just been amazing.

“So going through this season with Covid and whatnot hasn’t been so bad, because I have these guys.”

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