Among the various factors complicating the 2020 MLB season, the most important is also the simplest: Keeping players healthy. That’s always been the case when it comes to injury prevention, which takes on its own new wrinkles with the halting nature of the schedule, but throw in the mitigation of COVID-19 and things really get hairy.
Two teams have already missed more than a week of action and will somehow have to try to play more games than there are days left in the season. And that’s assuming there are no other outbreaks, whether it’s within their own organizations or those against whom they’ll be playing the rest of the way.
While there’s no such thing as an entirely foolproof set of prophylactic measures, especially not when traveling for road games, the Cubs were clearly ahead of the curve when it comes to setting and following protocols. Even with a 100+ page instruction manual, MLB only recently issued guidelines for players and staff remaining in their hotels in a belated attempt to close the barn door after the horses had escaped.
It’s not enough to have most of an organization following the rules, as the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and others have discovered. Despite an extra layer of industrial adhesive lathered on his chest protector, the feisty backstop never expected to catch the coronavirus.
“I am saddened to have tested positive for COVID-19, even after adhering to guidelines that were put in place,” Molina said in a statement. “I will do all that I can to return as soon as possible for Cardinals fans, the city of St. Louis and my teammates.”
The problem is that one or two players can screw up the whole thing by going out and enjoying themselves irresponsibly, then hopping on a plane with the rest of the team and infecting more people. It really comes down to personal responsibility in the end, but teams also have to do a good job of creating an environment that reduces the temptation to stray from the hotel.
As Marc Carig and Patrick Mooney reported for The Athletic ($), the Yankees and Cubs are among the industry leaders when it comes to thoughtful travel planning. In some cases, the efforts are as simple as providing free, high-quality food and premium coffee to eliminate the urge to head out for something as innocuous as breakfast.
Taking it a step further, the Cubs looked at the realities of life on the road and took a few very simple steps to make things easier for players.
With the travel industry decimated, the Cubs shopped for hotels with outdoor space that could be turned into an open-air lounge for the duration of their stays. Instead of sitting in their rooms, players and staffers could eat, hang out and make phone calls in those patio areas. In addition to meal money, the team is supplying three boxed meals a day on the road.
Instead of the usual early bus and late bus, the Cubs are scheduling buses to run at 20-minute intervals to avoid crowding during those rides, cut down on extra time at the ballpark and eliminate the need for ride-sharing services or private transportation.
Of course, none of that matters if on-field personnel can’t be trusted to do something as simple as wearing a mask or just not going out to crowded clubs and bars. MLB has even gone so far as to threaten suspensions for players or staff members who engage in “repeated or flagrant violations.” Okay, but why is that coming out two weeks into a season everyone knew would include these challenges?
The Cubs didn’t need to miss games or spend a week in a haunted hotel in Milwaukee to understand the need to adhere to what were originally some relatively amorphous protocols. From the start of training camp, players and staff were aligned when it came to the seriousness of the task ahead of them. Whether that meant staying out of bars and wearing masks in public, they understood the responsibility they had to one another when it came to safely playing a full season.
“The guys here in our clubhouse know the importance of sticking together and being as prudent as possible away from the field and at the field,” Anthony Rizzo said last week. “It’s a little nerve-wracking. We say the most normal think about the day is when we actually play baseball.”
Wearing a mask isn’t comfortable, nor is sitting around in a hotel room eating a boxed lunch and only talking to loved ones on the phone even when you’re back in the place where you grew up. That was the case for pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a Kansas City native who endured his own battle with COVID-19 and who had to avoid his mother, sister, and infant nephew when the Cubs came to town.
“I’m not leaving the hotel,” Hottovy told media members. “I told my family and friends and everybody. We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”
Because of the nature of this site, we’re naturally going to focus on the Cubs and paint our narratives from their perspective. But as we’ve been talking about here and on other platforms like The Rant since before camp even started, a team that’s been together for a long time and has a bunch of players who genuinely care for one another is going to be an advantage this year. More than the often trite notion of chemistry, this is simply a matter of being responsible adults.
The Cubs will be in St. Louis for a weekend series against a depleted Cardinals team that will be without at least seven players and might push ace Jack Flaherty’s start back past Sunday. Can a team still play the right way with a quarter of its roster shelved due to illness? I’m sure we’ll hear all about it if the Cardinals manage to *gulp* win a couple games.
If, however, the Redbirds drop two of three or are swept at home following the extended in-season layoff, there will be a lot of fans rightfully pissed off. Falling behind early, which they’ve already done, then trying to come back the rest of the season with no rest days and/or a full slate of double-headers isn’t a great look. It’s such a deliciously intriguing possibility that I don’t want to jinx it any further than I already have.
So the moral of the story is that the Cubs are pretty much the trendsetters when it comes to being thoughtful about travel during a pandemic, which isn’t really surprising in the least. It’s pretty disappointing to read about how shoddy other teams’ planning has been, though that’s not surprising either. MLB just can’t seem to get things right, largely because most of the people in charge have their eye on the big prize and fail to pay attention to the small details.
The small stuff matters now more than ever and teams that can best identify and leverage those aspects of our new reality that best lead to success will come out on top.