PHILADELPHIA -- Rob Manfred sat in an MLB Network studio Monday night -- with 13 members of the Miami Marlins' traveling party infected by covid-19 and holed up in a Rittenhouse Square hotel, but no recent positive tests involving any of the other 29 teams -- and stated with confidence that the situation didn't represent a "nightmare" scenario for Major League Baseball.
The commissioner was right. In pandemic baseball, things can always get worse.
On cue, over the ensuing days, the Marlins' coronavirus contagion spread to 20 people, including 18 of the 33 players on the roster last weekend in Philadelphia. Three Phillies employees (one coach and two clubhouse attendants, one in each locker room) tested positive, prompting the closure of Citizens Bank Park. Fifteen games were postponed, including Friday night in Milwaukee, after test results came back positive for two players with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
If this still isn't a nightmare, Manfred must at least be sleeping with one eye open.
Manfred realizes he may have to suspend the season, if not cancel it altogether, and according to ESPN, he told Players Association executive director Tony Clark as much on Friday. Additional positive tests over the weekend could force a decision.
The scheduling issues alone are enough to keep Manfred up at night. Can the Phillies, for instance, reasonably be expected to play Monday night at Yankee Stadium after holding one organized practice in five days? If so, they would still have to play 57 games in 56 days to complete a 60-game schedule. That seems far-fetched even with a slew of doubleheaders featuring seven-inning games, a rule agreed to Thursday by MLB and the players' union.
But every team doesn't have to play 60 games. Phillies Manager Joe Girardi is advocating for playoff spots to be determined by winning percentage. It happened that way because of work stoppages in 1981 and 1972, and it probably will happen again -- if baseball can even reach the finish line.
And that brings us to the overriding question after a troubling week.
Optimism within baseball grew as the rate of infection dropped throughout training camp. During the intake-screening process, MLB reported 66 positive tests (58 players, eight staff) out of 3,748 samples, a 1.8% rate. From that point through last Friday, MLB reported 29 positive tests (22 players, seven staff) out of 28,888 samples, a 0.1% rate.
But that was before the season opened, when teams were mostly contained in their home cities and playing intrasquad games. As Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said on July 22, "There's still going to be some uncertainty as we start to travel and play real games against different teams in different cities."
Those concerns have turned out to be legitimate.
Baseball is left, then, to press forward, leaning on its 113-page health and safety protocols and making adjustments along the way. Two changes after the Marlins' outbreak: MLB will mandate surgical masks instead of cloth masks during travel, and every team will appoint a compliance officer -- a hall monitor, of sorts -- to make sure members of the traveling party follow the rules.
"I think this is a great wake-up call, and I think baseball will probably pay more attention to it," Girardi said in an MLB Network Radio interview last week. "I hope so. Because you've seen what happened to the Marlins."
MLB officials wanted to believe the Marlins' outbreak was a one-team problem that could be easily dealt with. Isolate the infected players, have the Marlins replace them on the roster with others from the player pool, monitor the Phillies with daily testing, and move on.
But that proved to be wishful thinking after the Phillies' positive tests, the team's first since intake screening at the outset of training camp.
The Cardinals' positive tests might have wide-ranging ripple effects, too. The players reportedly were tested before Wednesday's game in Minnesota. After the Cardinals left town, the Cleveland Indians moved into the visiting clubhouse at Target Field on Thursday for a four-game series against the Twins.
At least MLB seems to have learned from the Marlins' mess. While the Marlins played last Sunday in Philadelphia despite three players receiving positive test results the night before, the Cardinals weren't allowed to take the field Friday to "allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted," MLB said in a statement.
That's progress. But it isn't difficult to see where this could go and what might happen next.