Theo Epstein Explains Cubs’ Attempts to ‘Flatten the Curve’ in Wake of MLB Suspending Activities

I’ve got to be honest, I still haven’t really processed the events of the last two days. Rather than a series of dominoes tumbling, the chain reaction that ostensibly began with the NBA suspending its season more closely resembled a controlled implosion of American sports. Things might have been different if this was all happening in the relative doldrums of August, but we’re in what would normally be the most frenetic period of the entire sports calendar.

March Madness alone being cancelled is enough to shift my addled brain off of its foundation, then you take away spring training and push the start of the regular season back two weeks. I’m really anxious about the London Series, to which I’ve had tickets and a flight secured since they were available to season ticket holders. That’s the first-worldiest of problems, but it’s kind of a bucket-list trip. More than the absence of competition itself, it’s the suddenness of it all that really leaves me gobsmacked.

I assume the same is true for most of you reading this, since it’s unlike anything most of us have ever dealt with. The lack of information isn’t helping things, either, since the resultant void has allowed far too much space to be filled with all manner of tripe. That’s why it was at least moderately comforting to hear Theo Epstein address some of Cubs’ baby steps.

“This is something that the world as a whole is dealing with and it’s gravely important that we all follow the lead of the experts, follow the science, and take actions that are in the best interest of the greater good and public health,” Epstein told Len Kasper on Marquee Thursday afternoon. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.

“We’re following the lead of the commissioner’s office and the players association when it comes to broader decisions about the game, obviously, so they canceled spring training games today. Very appropriate step. [They] delayed the start of the season at least until April 9, and we have shut down our facility for tomorrow to avoid assembling as a group and to perform a deep clean, and then we’ll reevaluate the weekend.”

I’m picturing something like a crime scene cleanup crew piling out of their van in hazmat suits and just hosing down every inch of Sloan Park with industrial-sized canisters of Lysol, but I’m sure it’s much more pedestrian than that. Even if this wasn’t spurred by a global pandemic, it’s not a bad idea to try and kill off whatever bugs have been passed around so far this spring.

“We don’t have anybody symptomatic at this point, we don’t have anyone ill right now, although we did have some people who were ill earlier in camp,” Epstein explained. “Unfortunately, the situation in this country right now is that very, very few people have been tested and because of that, even the people who were sick in our camp weren’t tested. And since there hasn’t been testing, we don’t know if anyone in camp has been infected. We hope that’s a situation that corrects itself for the greater good and for the public health, that there can be more testing and as there is, we’ll be able to test our players and have better information.

“But right now, we have to assume that…obviously, we know the science behind this as the infection is spreading and we’re practicing appropriate social distancing and hygiene and taking all the steps we can to try to flatten the curve of the outbreak, and do our part.”

Epstein wasn’t just misquoting Waylon Jennings’ lyrics from the Dukes of Hazzard theme song there, he’s talking about the epidemiological strategy of trying to avoid a huge spike in new cases of a disease or illness. By “flattening the curve,” or “straightening the hill” if you’re so inclined, hospitals and other medical facilities aren’t being inundated and can better treat those who may be affected.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that this is all meant as a preventive measure, a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 before it can truly explode. If, that is, such containment is still possible. Comparing it reported cases of infection and death due to other seemingly similar outbreaks makes zero sense, as that is like saying Pete Alonso isn’t as good a home run hitter as Andre Dawson because he’s got fewer career homers.

These extreme actions to cancel essentially all large public gatherings, including schools and churches across the country, are not being taken because of what has happened, and thinking that’s the case is both dangerous and ignorant. It’s even more ignorant to perpetuate the foolish notion that this is some liberal plot against the president. The steps being taken now are like setting a fire break or doing a controlled burn.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

If all goes well, everyone will look back on this whole thing as a really memorable blip on the radar like the Blizzard of ’78 or whatever. Man, remember the COVID-19 Shutdown of ’20? That was wild. And if that’s the case, all the conspiracy theorists and folks who don’t understand that it’s not just about whether they themselves contract the coronavirus can continue to talk about how stupid this all was. I sincerely hope that’s the case because it’ll mean the extreme precautions worked.

And, hey, maybe life could have continued unimpeded by sweeping safety measures to counter this novel pathogen and we’d all have been fine. But that particular tangent of the multiverse is running parallel to ours and can’t be readily accessed for comparison. Absent an Infinity Stone or two, we don’t really know how long this whole moratorium is going to last, which sucks.

“When it comes to a timeline, we’re following the lead of the commissioner’s office and the players association,” Epstein said. “There are obviously myriad issues at play when it comes to pushing back a season or missing significant games. And honestly, I think of the people who can least afford to lose a source of income, whether it’s gameday employees or the thousands and thousands of people who rely on baseball as an industry to make a living.

“So that’s at the forefront of our mind, along with the health and well-being of players, staff, their families, our fans. We just want to make sure everyone’s okay and make good decisions based on science and the collective best interest.”

While we don’t know exactly when baseball will return to action, we do know that it won’t return to Chicago — and probably the country — until May 1 at the earliest. That decision came at the recommendation of Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who gained the agreement of all Illinois-based team owners prior to making the announcement during a Thursday press conference, and others throughout the sport seem to be eyeing the same target.

“The health and wellness of our fans, players and associates is our team’s top priority,” read a statement from Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. “In light of rapidly changing developments resulting from the coronavirus, we believe Major League Baseball’s decision is in the best interests of the safety and well-being of the public and the game of baseball. While our hope is to play baseball at Wrigley Field soon, we will continue to work in close coordination with Major League Baseball, as well as with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and their administrations to ensure that we make the best decisions to protect public health and safety.

“In the meantime, Major League Baseball is preparing a variety of contingency plans in concert with clubs regarding the 2020 regular season schedule and will be offering updates as soon as possible.”

The date by which games start back up is the most visible issue, but exactly how MLB and the players union decide to move forward is more important to the overall function of the sport. Do they still need to hold some form of spring training? What do players do in the meantime? How do they handle service time and performance incentives? What about minor league players, who are only paid over the course of the regular season?

The league and union were expected to have begun working these details out by Thursday evening, but it’ll be a while before anything gets hammered out and announced publicly. And even if some of the agreements are reached on the logistics of how to proceed once it’s deemed okay to do so, the situation is still far too fluid to project much beyond the next day.

For now, then, please keep washing your hands regularly and taking the necessary steps to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Also, try to remember that this isn’t just about whether you are personally concerned about getting sick.

Update: Jon Heyman reports that players are being sent home per an agreement between the league and union. Some could stay near their respective camps, especially if they’ve got homes nearby, but the bigger goal was to be able to spend this limbo time with their families.

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