The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros, last year’s World Series participants, chose to cancel workouts Monday after having failed to receive results from coronavirus tests administered Friday — which they had expected to receive by Sunday. The St. Louis Cardinals also canceled their workout later Monday over testing delays, and the Oakland Athletics were waiting on test results before deciding whether to work out Monday evening.
Combined with a steady trickle of players testing positive and others who have decided to opt out of playing, the testing problems served to underscore the fragility of baseball’s plans to start its season July 23 and contest a 60-game schedule and a full postseason before Halloween.
“Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement announcing the cancellation of the team’s workout. “[MLB] needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”
MLB released a lengthy statement Monday afternoon acknowledging the issues — which it said were caused by the holiday weekend and were not expected to recur — and commending the teams that responded by canceling workouts.
“Our plan required extensive delivery and shipping services, including proactive special accommodations to account for the holiday weekend,” MLB said. "The vast majority of those deliveries occurred without incident and allowed the protocols to function as planned. Unfortunately, several situations included unforeseen delays. …
“We appreciate the great cooperation from the players as well as the hard work of the Clubs and many internal and external staff members under these challenging circumstances. The process has not been without some unforeseen difficulties, which are being addressed with the service providers that are essential to the execution of the protocols. It is important to be mindful that nearly all the individuals have been tested as planned.”
According to MLB’s 2020 operations manual, the 113-page document containing the health and safety protocols in use this season, players and staff are to be tested every other day — with the program run out of the same Utah lab that administers baseball’s anti-doping testing — with the goal of “ensuring expedited reporting (approximately 24 hours) at all times.”
But by Monday, some teams, including the Nationals, were approaching 72 hours without results from their testing — despite having been tested again and going through team workouts Sunday.
By that point, as some teams were preparing for intrasquad games on the fourth day of their camps, the Athletics had yet to hold their first full-squad workout — turning the testing problems into a competitiveness and integrity issue, with each day precious in a training camp condensed to about three weeks.
MLB and the union on Monday were actively seeking an additional lab to speed up and streamline the testing process, according to two people familiar with that effort. The Athletic first reported on the pursuit of an additional lab.
The revelations about testing delays and the canceled workouts came on the same day MLB was unveiled its 2020 schedule. Unlike some other sports, baseball is not using a single-site or multicity bubble or hub model for its season. Instead it is planning for teams to play in their home stadiums and travel between cities — a decision that requires personal vigilance on the part of individuals and an airtight testing program to ensure an infected person does not cause a larger outbreak.
“It’s not rocket science. The longer it takes to find out a result, the longer you can be infectious and not know it, and the longer you can be spreading the virus and not know it,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “If you’re asymptomatic or presymptomatic … you may still be spreading the virus. And the only way to know is to get a positive test.
“If you become infectious on Wednesday and you get the results on Thursday, you may only spread the virus for a few hours. Not great, but if you’re masking and social distancing, hopefully one infection won’t turn into five. But if you don’t get the results back until Saturday, you could be spreading it Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It’s a simple numbers game.”
The revelations about testing delays came as Atlanta Braves right fielder Nick Markakis became the latest veteran player to opt out of the season because of the risk, a list that also includes former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez, and two-time all-star first baseman Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. Other players, including superstar center fielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, have said they are still undecided about playing.
“I talked to a lot of guys across the league, and they’re texting me a lot,” Trout said on a video conference with reporters. “… They’re all thinking the same thing: Is this going to work?”
Andrew Miller, a Cardinals reliever and a member of the MLB Players Association’s executive board, was among the players expressing concern over the ultimate fate of the season. “There’s still some doubt we’re going to have a season now,” he said. “By no means is this a slam dunk. I think we’re going to give our best effort, but for me to sit here and say [the season will definitely take place] I think would be a lie.”
The delays in test results first became apparent Sunday, when Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle revealed during a Zoom call with reporters that he had yet to receive his results from testing administered Friday. Doolittle counts himself among many players “on the fence” about playing in 2020 who decided — at least for now — to play in part because of the expedited test results.
“We’ve got to clean that up,” Doolittle said. “As the season moves forward, as we continue spring training, especially once we start traveling, those results have got to be back.”
Also Sunday, the A’s canceled their scheduled workout because of the delay in testing results, which General Manager David Forst, in a text message to reporters, blamed on the holiday weekend. However, in a WhatsApp message to A’s employees obtained and published by the Athletic, Forst took aim at MLB and Comprehensive Drug Testing Inc., the sample collection service the sport is using.
“At this point the blame lies with MLB and CDT,” Forst wrote, according to the Athletic, “and I won’t cover for them like I did [to the media] earlier today. Despite having our schedule a week ahead of time, they didn’t alert us to the possibility of any complications around July 4th, and once there were issues, they did nothing to communicate that to us or remedy the situation until [the A’s] forced the issue. If possible, I’m as frustrated and pissed as you are.”
The Angels worked out Sunday even though sample collectors did not show up at their facilities, prompting players to administer their own tests and have the team ship them to the lab in Utah, according to the Los Angeles Times. The team pushed back its next workout from Monday morning to the afternoon as it awaited results.
MLB and the players’ union spent much of the spring fighting over economics, specifically how players would be paid for a truncated season played without fans. Discussions over the health and safety protocols took place more sporadically, with much of the final document agreed to in late June — about 10 days before the opening of camps.
“Because of the way the conversation shifted to be about the economics, [it meant] the health and safety protocols kind of took a back seat,” Doolittle said. “And then all of a sudden they were like, ‘All right, July 1, go!’… I really wish the focus was more on the health and safety protocols, and maybe we could have avoided a lot of that mess.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.
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