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OC Register: As Marlins deal with coronavirus outbreak, MLB proceeds with caution

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Thursday, a couple hours before the official start of the new season, Major League Baseball owners ratified a 16-team playoff structure. It was no more radical, perhaps, than the idea of a 60-game regular season. No plan is too large for last-minute tinkering this year – not in this, the shortest and strangest of seasons.

MLB will have to adjust on the fly again after postponing two games Monday. A total of 11 Miami Marlins players reportedly tested positive for coronavirus in Philadelphia. Four had been scratched from the Marlins’ game against the Phillies on Sunday. Players, coaches and staff were scheduled to fly back to Miami for their home opener tonight, but remained in Philadelphia instead. The Marlins’ game against the Orioles was postponed. The Orioles are reportedly flying back to Baltimore from Miami tonight.

MLB also postponed the Phillies’ scheduled home game against the New York Yankees, who would be expected to occupy the same clubhouse and dugout the Marlins used over the weekend. Now, baseball can only hope the outbreak is contained to one team. The Phillies’ players, coaches, and staff are reportedly awaiting results from their Sunday tests.

“The health of our players and staff has been and will continue to be our primary focus as we navigate through these uncharted waters,” Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said in a statement. “After a successful Spring 2.0, we have now experienced challenges once we went on the road and left Miami. Postponing tonight’s (Monday’s) home opener was the correct decision to ensure we take a collective pause and try to properly grasp the totality of this situation. We have conducted another round of testing for our players and staff, and our team will all remain in Philadelphia pending the results of those tests, which we expect later today.”

The news reverberated around MLB Monday.

This afternoon the Dodgers are flying to Houston. They will begin a three-game series against the Astros on Tuesday. Their first road trip of the season begins in a county that reported 1,494 new cases of coronavirus a day ago.

“You’re always looking at who you’re taking with you,” Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM Monday. “Or what people you need to leave home because you can do without them for a few days. If nothing else, what’s going on right now with other teams is a reminder of how serious this is and how fast this can get out of hand if you don’t watch yourself.”

Speaking with reporters on a conference call Monday, Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said his level of concern went from “an 8 to a 12.”

“I’m scared,” Martinez said. “I really am.”

Angels manager Joe Maddon adopted a more cautious tone on his call with reporters.

“My first thought is, I think it’s really important to trace how it occurred,” Maddon said of the Marlins’ outbreak. “That’s the one thing we need to know first before you jump to a lot of different conclusions. To me, if there was a breach in protocol by any of those players, it’s more easily explainable. If not, it becomes more problematic, I think. I would just wait and see: let them trace things back, figure out why it occurred, then you create your conclusions or draw your plan up to solve it. That’s where I’m at right now.”

To a degree, MLB anticipated problems attempting to stage a season amidst a global pandemic. Players were given the right to opt out of the season. Those deemed “high risk” because of a pre-existing medical condition or other special circumstances were able to collect their prorated salary and a full season’s service time.

The league’s existing rules included a Disaster Plan outlining the protocol for an “epidemic illness” that causes “the death, dismemberment or permanent injury from playing professional baseball” of at least five players after Opening Day. The plan authorizes commissioner Rob Manfred to pause or cancel a team’s season after consulting with the MLB Players’ Association. It also authorizes a “Rule 29 draft” in which an affected team can re-stock its roster by selecting up to five players from another team’s roster.

But no special disaster provisions were made in a 33,286-word manual outlining the parameters for the 2020 season, including safety guidelines for teams and players. In a preseason interview with Dan Patrick, Manfred acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak would be reckoned with on an ad hoc basis.

“The way that I think about it … is in the vein of competitive integrity,” Manfred said. “In a 60-game season, if we have a team or two that’s really decimated for the number of people who have the virus and can’t play, for any significant period of time, it can have a real impact on the competition and we have to think very hard about what we’re doing.”

Dodgers pitcher David Price was among the 12 rostered players who opted out of the season. Monday’s news resonated with him from afar.

“Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” Price wrote on his Twitter account. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”

As the Dodgers hit the road Monday, Kasten struck a realistic tone.

“It’s a reminder,” Kasten told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM. “I think we knew it, but this reminds us in big bold neon letters that we’re not out of the woods by a longshot and it’s going to be like this, hopefully, til the very end of October. But let’s wait and see.”

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