“Yeah, as I sit here talking to you guys, I still don’t have my test results from Friday’s test,” Doolittle continued. “So I got tested again this morning without the results of my test from Friday. We’ve got to clean that up, right? That’s one thing that makes me a little nervous.”
Doolittle, the Washington Nationals’ closer, is never shy with his thoughts. On Sunday, he expressed skepticism about baseball’s return, his chances of playing this season and the sport’s coronavirus testing model, then discussed how the game fits in the national conversation on racial inequality. And he didn’t stop there.
His comments came on the third day of Major League Baseball’s summer camp. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez would soon announce that two players tested positive for the novel coronavirus during intake screening this past week. He did not identify them. Fifty-eight players were tested in the initial round, and some have yet to receive their results. Martinez assured that the two who tested positive had not been to the ballpark or around teammates, but the news still added to what’s unfolding around baseball.
Four Atlanta Braves players tested positive. First baseman Freddie Freeman was one of them, and he has been dealing with body aches, headaches, chills and a fever since Thursday, according to a message from his wife. The Miami Marlins announced Saturday that four players had tested positive. The New York Yankees announced four positive player cases, too. This weekend alone, veteran pitchers David Price of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Felix Hernandez of the Braves opted out of playing, joining three Nationals — Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Welington Castillo — as well as the Colorado Rockies’ Ian Desmond and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Mike Leake.
And when discussing the season with reporters Sunday, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller voiced his concern. Miller, a member of the players’ union’s executive subcommittee, said: “I think there’s still some doubt that we’re going to have a season now. By no means is this a slam dunk. We’re trying, we’re going to give it our best effort, but for me to sit here and say 100 percent would be a lie.”
In Washington, while alone in the news conference room, Doolittle echoed that stance. The 33-year-old praised how the Nationals’ medical staff is handling a difficult and fluid situation. Then he mentioned the Nationals have yet to receive the promised personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, gowns and gloves. Then he discussed the every-other-day testing model’s holes, his recent participation in Black Lives Matter protests and this attempt to return’s reflection of bigger societal issues.
“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,” Doolittle said. “We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down. And, like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. ...
“If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized,” he continued. “We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.”
Much of baseball’s plan hinges on players, coaches and staffers staying cautious and safe away from team facilities. Five teams — the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays — will try to do so in states experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases. If the regular season begins this month, all 30 clubs will have to stave off the virus while traveling between cities. As Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer put it Saturday, there’s no way to get the risks down to zero.
What the sport can mitigate is the ability of the virus to spread through its clubhouses. Frequent testing is at the crux of that effort. MLB’s 113-page operations manual says results should be available in approximately 24 hours. But Doolittle’s experience showed a lag in that turnaround, coming at the end of MLB’s first crack at a two-day testing window.
That’s one reason Doolittle and others are still not sold on playing. Doolittle noted that as training progresses, the season starts and traveling begins, test results will have to come back quicker than they already are. On Friday, MLB and the players’ union announced the results of the first week of intake testing. Among 3,185 samples collected, 38 came back positive, including 31 for players.
The numbers appeared encouraging, but there was a catch: According to four people with knowledge of those results, they only included Wednesday tests that returned results by Friday. They did not include the more than 40 players who tested positive for the coronavirus a week earlier, before traveling to their clubs’ training sites. They could not have included results for those tested after Wednesday, who were waiting for clearance to practice. The data was incomplete.
“There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now,” Doolittle said. “That’s kind of where I am. I think I’m planning on playing. But if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things we have to worry about and kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out.”