If you’ve watched some telecasts of games in MLB’s stubby start-up season, you may have seen something you didn’t expect. High-fives. Hugs. Spitting. Close contact.
You know, like it was in the before days, when baseball players celebrated all over each other as if style points were available whenever a teammate did something more than foul a ball off his instep.
As the only active major team sport not currently playing in a supposedly hygienic bubble, baseball players were told no, don’t do that happy stuff. Behave as if your mama and her preacher second husband were watching. Keep hands to yourself, wash them often, and you can sleep in your own bed and still play whatever ball is to be played.
At least that was the intent of the health-protocol portion of a 113-page document the union signed off on with MLB owners to work around the demon virus that has changed the world.
So what happens? On opening weekend, 13 of the 33 traveling members of the Miami Marlins tested positive. (Tuesday morning update: Another four Marlins players tested positive, bringing the total to 17, per The Athletic.) Dunno yet how or where the infections happened, but the episode went like a hot iron through baseball Monday, forcing postponement of at least three games.
By Tuesday afternoon, MLB postponed Miami’s next six games, starting with Tuesday night’s home game against the Orioles, citing the belief that “it is most prudent to allow the Marlins time to focus on providing care for their players and planning their Baseball Operations for a resumption early next week.”
The Marlins played the weekend in Philadelphia, but the next team in, the dreadnought Yankees, shrieked like children watching “The Omen” when offered use of the visitors clubhouse in Philly.
That, sad to say, is typical of how ball is going to go if MLB continues this futile pursuit of pretend purity in a contaminated world.
Which is what Commissioner Rob Manfred said he wants to continue to do.
“I don’t put this in the nightmare category,” Manfred told MLB Network Monday afternoon. “It’s not a positive thing, but I don’t see it as a nightmare . . . That’s why we have the expanded rosters. That’s why we have the pool of additional players.
“We built protocols anticipating that we would have positive tests at some point during the season. The protocols were built to allow us to play through those positives. We believe the protocols are adequate to keep our players safe.”
But 13 on one team in the opening weekend, when health vigilance figures to be at its apex? Manfred sounded almost Trumpian in his determination to take the train over the washed-out trestle.
At least Scott Servais was willing to own up to his own club’s lax treatment of the rules designed to preserve large paychecks.
“It’s certainly something we’re well aware of,” the Mariners manager said on a Zoom conference from Houston Monday, ahead of the 8-5 loss to the Astros. “Quite frankly, it’s something we have to do a better job of here, too. Sunday’s game (a 7-6 Mariners win, ending the Mariners’ 15-game losing streak to the Astros) was really exciting. Guys are getting big hits and you just forget. And I’m as guilty as anybody.
“We’ll have a team meeting and we’ll come up with a 2020 version of high fives or different ways to celebrate in the clubhouse. We have to do a better job there.”
Unlike Manfred, at least Servais understands what he’s up against — human nature. There’s little hope of de-programming on the fly people who have ritualized and made mandatory jubilant expression as a method of personal validation.
Obviously, none of this is the fault of the players. Pandemics have decimated humanity for centuries, and the damage from this one was was compounded in the U.S. by a president and his enablers who couldn’t manage rainwater into a puddle.
But in order to make money, players agreed to changes in behavior that weren’t sustainable. They’ve agreed to do the near-impossible: Stop in mid-sneeze.
“I think we’re saying all the right stuff, but you watch the games, we have to do the right thing,” said Servais, who has had multiple team meetings on the subject. “Sometimes you let your emotions get in the way and you just react. We weren’t clearly thinking and slowing it down enough in those spots.
“I don’t want to curb the enthusiasm of young players. That’s the beauty of the game, what we’re going through to get a chance to experience that with our whole team. But we do have to be smart.”
The Mariners left Houston for another virus hot spot, Orange County, to play three games starting Tuesday against the Angels. Servais plans to tighten the screws.
You’ve got to lock down and stay in the hotel,” he said. “To my understanding, nobody has really left the hotel at all.”
Right. Tell rich, bored, good-looking, 20-something men to behave themselves in the capital of good-looking women. But if that isn’t sufficiently ludicrous, try this Manfred quote:
“I remain optimistic the protocols are strong enough that it will allow us to continue to play even through an outbreak like this and complete our season,” he said.
I hope it works. What I prefer is that the intellectual, psychological and financial rigor we are applying to sports safety be applied to the re-opening of schools. But that sort of priority has never happened, so why should a little pandemic be of sufficient gravitas to change now.