Following the coronavirus outbreak that infected nearly half of the Miami Marlins' roster and prompted the temporary suspension of the team's season, Major League Baseball is encouraging players not to leave hotels in road cities except for games, mandating the use of surgical masks instead of cloth masks during travel and requiring every team to travel with a compliance officer who ensures players and staff properly follow the league's protocol, sources told ESPN.
The updated rules, outlined in a memo distributed to teams Tuesday, came as MLB investigates the cause of the Marlins' outbreak that has seen 16 players and two staff members test positive for COVID-19, according to sources. The Marlins' games through Sunday have been postponed, and the prospect of their season restarting Tuesday at home against Philadelphia remains in question.
Commissioner Rob Manfred defended the league's protocol in an interview with MLB Network on Monday and could further strengthen it in the coming weeks as the consequences of the Marlins' outbreak become clearer -- particularly regarding the scrupulousness of contact tracing. The league on Wednesday also postponed Friday's scheduled game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, the latter of whom played the Marlins on Sunday before the scope of the outbreak was clear. The game is set for Saturday, giving Philadelphia an extra day to assess whether the virus was transmitted by the Marlins to any of its players, sources told ESPN.
Nowhere does the 113-page protocol that governs the 2020 season explicitly address how the league would handle a coronavirus outbreak, let alone one the magnitude of the Marlins'. It offers neither a threshold of cases to shut down a team nor a scenario that would cause a pause in the season. For a document as detailed and pedantic as MLB's operations manual, the lack of specificity on literally the entire reason for its existence -- the presence of a global pandemic -- has been a glaring omission, multiple general managers said leading up to the season.
It also was intentional, with the league seeking flexibility in its actions. The virus' infiltration of the Marlins this week proved seminal, finally putting a number on the lowest figure baseball is willing to stomach without shutting down operations beyond the heart of an outbreak: 18 positive tests, including 16 players -- 48% of those traveling with the team.
From the moment MLB committed to holding its season outside of a bubble and sending hundreds of people on the road every day, this was, if not inevitable, then at least expected. And yet the volume of Marlins personnel with COVID-19 still shook league officials who had hoped outbreaks would top off at half that size. For all the rigor MLB took with its protocol, the virus beat it in one place on the season's first weekend.
The fallout is only beginning. The Marlins are sidelined for the moment, their return date unclear. They are currently assessing how to fill out a roster with a combination of players already in their organization and training at their alternate site in Jupiter, Florida, free agents and waiver-wire claims. The Phillies, who played them Sunday when only four players were known to be COVID-19 positive, are simply hoping their daily tests continue to return negative, as they have been for two consecutive days, according to sources. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, who were supposed to be playing the Marlins and Phillies, respectively, started a two-game series Wednesday against each other instead. This is pandemic baseball: A schedule is a schedule until it's not.
More important than anything in the short term is how baseball adjusts in the wake of its first outbreak. As much as Manfred stood behind the protocol Monday, and as clearly as the league on Tuesday highlighted that the previous four days found no positive COVID-19 cases among the league's other 29 teams, here is the truth: The rules meant to protect players and keep them safe could not prevent a spectacular outbreak.
The investigation is looking into a wide range of factors, from the team's in-stadium behavior -- mask wearing, social distancing and other protocol-suggested factors -- to the off-field activities of players and staff, according to sources. The league will especially probe the veracity of players going out at night in Atlanta during the Marlins' time in the city for preseason games against the Braves. However much the actions of those in the Marlins' organization might have tested the protocol by not adhering to it, what happened Sunday highlights gaps that warrant more attention.
Following the positive tests of starter Jose Ureña, first baseman Garrett Cooper and right fielder Harold Ramirez, the protocol called for contact tracing -- a look into which other players or personnel fell within Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of "close contact": being within 6 feet of an individual for about 10 minutes, according to a copy of the protocol obtained by ESPN.
Only one player, sources said, was in that category after contact tracing: starter Sandy Alcantara, whom MLB Network reported was among those to later test positive. The notion that just one player among a team traveling 33 would be subject to the close-contact protocol -- quarantine pending the results of a rapid coronavirus test -- struck officials from other teams as unlikely. All 30 MLB teams are required to staff at least one trained contact tracer, while the contact-tracing operation is overseen by the league.