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Matter: Cardinals' COVID-19 cases cast more doubt on MLB plan
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Matter: Cardinals' COVID-19 cases cast more doubt on MLB plan

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Cardinals host a virus-delayed opening day against the Pirates

St. Louis Cardinals take the field for player introductions before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates to open the virus-delayed baseball season on Friday, July 24, 2020 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Here’s where we are at the sobering intersection of sports and COVID-19: Friday’s Cardinals-Brewers game in Milwaukee was postponed after two Cardinals players tested positive for the coronavirus, but if that number stays at two when the team’s full results come in Saturday, the team will be relieved. So will the rest of baseball.

Two positive cases of a virus that’s long-term effects are still widely unknown is scary news for any team in any sport. But if the number stays at two, the season should resume with Saturday’s game and a doubleheader Sunday.

That is until the next positive test arrives.

Then, we’ll do this all over again until it becomes as routine as reading the box scores and scanning the daily transaction wire. Or MLB commissioner Rob Manfred could say enough is enough and pull the plug on the whole experiment of playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic, which he’s told players association executive director Tony Clark is now a possibility, ESPN reported Friday.

Until that happens, we’ll keep one eye trained on the division standings, the other on the COVID standings — the Marlins still lead the latter — and hope tomorrow’s news is better than yesterday’s.

“We’re five games into our season and here we are, right?” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said during Friday’s Zoom call with reporters. “There’s teams that have played less than us. So I think the best way to approach the season is day to day.”

“Obviously we knew when we started this that there was going to be people that would contract this,” Mozeliak added, while isolated in his Milwaukee hotel. “When we talk about a bubble it’s not a perfect bubble. It’s not a completely controlled environment. I’m still overall optimistic that we’ll get through this.”

About the bubble. By now, it’s more than fair to second guess MLB’s resistance to the bubble or hub model — a plan that’s worked well for the MLS, NHL, NBA and WNBA. All spring long we heard the arguments against a baseball bubble: The season’s too long for players to be separated from their families. It’s too hot to stick everyone in Arizona all summer. One outbreak could spoil the whole experiment.

Granted, a bubble won’t guarantee to mitigate the virus’ spread, but in a world that’s improvising on a daily basis in its battle against COVID-19, all we know is what works and what doesn’t work in real time. The bubbles have worked. MLB’s plan looks more suspicious by the day.

MLB’s plan was similar to the Bundesliga, the German soccer league that over a six-week period allowed teams to play games in cities across the country while players and coaches stayed at their homes instead of hotels. One crucial difference, as the Washington Post reported in July: The Bundesliga had a more thorough set of safety protocols to govern the league’s return to play.

“Germany was able to pull it off, but we are not Germany. Many of the markets that MLB wants to play in do not look like Germany,” Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, told the Washington Post a few weeks ago. “The baseline risk is much higher. So unfortunately, because of our response to COVID-19, sports leagues need stricter return plans, and I don’t know that MLB has really wrestled with that yet.”

It hadn’t, until now. Heading into Friday, eight MLB games had already been postponed because of positive cases within the Marlins and Phillies organizations with another two games postponed Friday and (for now) another five over the weekend. By then, eight of MLB’s 30 teams will have lost games because of the virus: the Marlins, Phillies, Yankees, Orioles, Nationals, Cardinals, Brewers and Blue Jays.

Contact tracing could entangle other teams, too. The Twins hosted the Cardinals at Target Field on Tuesday and Wednesday, then played the Indians there on Thursday.

Here’s hoping the Cardinals’ two cases don’t multiply into more and that one postponed game serves as the “loud wake-up call” that Mozeliak described Friday. If an infected teammate doesn’t deliver the message like a thunderclap through the clubhouse, the season is doomed.

“Baseball players are creatures of habit,” Mozeliak said. “They kind of expect this to look like 2019, when it’s not going to be. So … the teams that adapt the quickest probably survive it.”

Stepping outside of baseball, Friday’s news should send shivers down the spines of college football coaches and athletics directors. Their seasons, their budgets, their livelihoods, are at stake. Just Thursday, Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk said the college sports world will keep a close eye on MLB’s return to play.

“It’ll be a good case study for us,” Sterk said, “to really observe how baseball comes out of this.”

How’s that working out?

If MLB risks a midseason shutdown — a league with 30 teams of 30 players — how exactly will college football and its 130 Division I teams of 100-plus players play a full season without multiple interruptions? Remember, too, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences have suggested college teams test their athletes once a week, 72 hours before competition. How’s that going to prevent an outbreak like we’ve seen in MLB, where players are tested every other day and still getting infected?

The cautionary tales are adding chapters by the day.

Dave Matter

@dave_matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

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