So now consider Soto on Saturday, facing teammate Kyle McGowin in a near-empty stadium. The Washington Nationals played an intrasquad game after their weekend series in Miami was canceled. Soto, having isolated for the past 10 days — and for two weeks at the start of July — was finally back after testing positive for the novel coronavirus. And McGowin, a minor league pitcher, was well aware once Soto ripped one out to left.
First, Soto flipped his bat like a pinwheel. Next, he pointed at the bench, shouted, “It’s over!” at a few heckling players and pointed to the sky while rounding first. Then, he leaped onto home plate, his feet crashing down together, as if he were a child at the park.
It looked like unbridled happiness. But don’t discount the relief.
“It feels amazing,” Soto said Saturday, mixing in laughter and his banter with teammates. “I mean, every time you hit a homer, you’re going to feel good. It feels the same way, and it feels a little more because it’s my first day.”
Soto said he believes he didn’t have the coronavirus, despite learning of his positive result Opening Day. He never showed symptoms. He did three rapid-result antigen tests July 23, and each came back negative. None of his teammates tested positive in the following days. He then received back-to-back lab-confirmed negatives through MLB, which cleared him to play under its protocols.
Those are a few reasons Soto is sure this all started with a false positive. The other is that he has been cautious and smart away from the park, according to Soto and teammates. Those close to Soto say he was frustrated by how the public could perceive his positive test result. He didn’t want to be seen as reckless or immature, contracting the virus at a bar or restaurant in the hours between games. He was hellbent on clearing his name, regardless of whether anyone was judging him.
This week, as the Miami Marlins dealt with a coronavirus outbreak, it was revealed that some players may have been too lax during a road trip to Atlanta, going to clubs and a hotel bar. On Saturday, as Soto returned, Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a pointed statement through ESPN that angered a handful of Nationals. Manfred’s message was that if this season doesn’t work, it will be the players’ fault.
It was then worth weighing that against Soto’s comments as the left fielder insisted he did nothing “wrong.”
“We are playing. The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general, and there is no reason to quit now,” Manfred said through ESPN on Saturday, responding to doubt about whether the season could continue amid a rash of cancellations. “We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
“Because I’ve been following the rules, I’ve been being really serious with this because it is out there,” Soto said of why he thinks it was a false positive. Then, on a Zoom interview with a group of reporters, he shrugged off caring about what people think: “But for me, they can look at me however they want. I’m going to be the same guy.”
Once MLB and the players’ union agreed to health and safety protocols in June, an obvious flaw was highlighted. There were 113 pages of guidelines, rule changes and directions for such things as how to safely go to the bathroom on planes. But rules for conduct away from club facility’s were thin, murky and framed as strong suggestions.
This was always going to be the challenge of not playing inside a bubble. Players would have never agreed to completely restrictive policies. The overall plan was signed by MLB and the union, which means praise or blame should be doled out to both parties. The players, though, will face the public litigation when coronavirus cases pop up.
That’s what Soto braced for in late July. It’s what the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals are now experiencing firsthand. The Athletic reported Saturday that, while an MLB investigation found some Marlins did visit bars in Atlanta, it probably wasn’t the reason for their outbreak. The Cardinals, experiencing a smaller outbreak, have many questioning their recent whereabouts on social media.
“I think it’s like incredible how people are just like looking to find this answer, as if to create this blame game,” Cardinals President John Mozeliak said in a Zoom call with reporters Saturday. “And so I find that rather sickening and annoying. We’re in the pandemic. The likelihood of where someone could have gotten this could be anywhere from a grocery store to a bar and everywhere in between. But trying to determine that I don’t think is very helpful.”
“Honestly, only the person that tested positive knows what transpired. I can’t comment on that,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Saturday of the stigma attached to players testing positive. “What I do know is we’re doing everything we can in our power to keep everybody healthy. We’ve done well. We really have.”
On one hand, there’s evidence around baseball of some poor and expected decisions. On the other, there’s the reality that a virus can be contracted in many ways. Soto saying “it is out there” was a nod to the latter. He was back in action Sunday, hoping to return by the middle of this week. After making a catch in front of the left field wall, Adam Eaton offered this narration from the dugout: “Ladies and gentlemen, he does it all.”
And if you ask Soto, that includes adhering to baseball’s 2020 honor code.