There was skepticism in the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse about whether or not Major League Baseball could return safely, Rhys Hoskins said Tuesday. But as the days have passed, hiccups in testing have been resolved, and positive tests continue to dwindle, players are becoming more comfortable returning to play.
Hoskins was part of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s, R-Zionsville, Major League Baseball Return to Play roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon. The panel included Hoskins, the former Williamsport Crosscutter who is the Phillies’ first baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington, MLB Medical Director Dr. Gary Green, Major League Baseball Players Association COO Xavier James, and MLB Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Patrick Houlihan.
The Major League Baseball season begins Thursday when the defending World Series champion Washington National host the New York Yankees at 7 p.m. This season will look vastly different than any season in MLB’s history because of the COVID-19 pandemic shortening it to just 60 games. Toomey invited the panel to discuss how the league is returning to play safely.
“I’m optimistic Major League Baseball can resume safely,” Toomey said in his opening remarks. “This season will undoubtedly be different, but it’s those differences may mark a greater interest in the sport.”
When players first reported to Summer Camp earlier this month, initial intake coronavirus tests of players came back with a 1% rate of positivity. But as additional testing has been conducted, that number has fallen to about 0.1%. It’s that kind of progress which has Hoskins and his teammates comfortable with the direction Major League Baseball is going as they work to play the 60-game schedule and postseason.
Green also said the fall in the number of positive tests says players and staff are taking the necessary precautions away from the field to make sure the virus doesn’t impact the season anymore than it already has.
“That number really is exceptional when you consider a third of the clubs are playing in hot spot regions,” Green said. “But testing is only one part of the process. Players are safest when they’re in the ballpark. That leaves the question of what are you doing outside the ballpark? Once someone tests positive, the cow is already out of the barn. What frequent testing can do is shut the barn door quickly to control and outbreak. Testing is kind of the final exam of whether or not everyone is doing the things they need to do outside the ballpark.”
“It’s a testament to how serious our guys are taking it and how serious players around the league are taking it,” Hoskins said. “I’ve basically asked my wife to quarantine herself during these 60-70 days to mitigate as much risk as we can. We’re pretty confident that if we can continue on with what we’re doing, we’ll be able to get through the season.”
Since MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred shut down the season during spring training on March 12, Houlihan said MLB has explored different ways in which it could get the season started and, hopefully, finished. Part of the included exploring the option operating a bubble situation in just a handful of cities the way the NBA and NHL have planned the restart to their seasons.
But Houlihan said that plan lacked practicality. With teams having 60 players on current rosters to prepare for the season, it would force MLB to find suitable housing for at least 1,800 players and just as many staff for MLB’s 30 clubs. Houlihan also said players weren’t excited about the potential of being locked away from their family for three months or more, and there was no space to have players’ families also stay within the bubble.
Teams are going to play their home games in their home parks, except for the Toronto Blue Jays, who are still looking for a home after the Canadian government said it would not permit teams coming from the United States to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine when crossing the border. The Blue Jays could potentially play in Pittsburgh, which is one of the scenarios MLB is currently working on, according to Cherington.
“There were a lot of challenges to planning this, but we think the better way of doing this for us is the way we did it,” Houlihan said. “In that retrospect, I’m happy with the decision we made. It’s a testament to Rhys and the players that if we can do this and are testing at less than 1% positive, you don’t need a bubble. And if we can stick to this, it’s the best approach for baseball.”
All those on the panel Tuesday agreed Major League Baseball has taken the health and safety of its players and team staff seriously as it’s laid out its plan for a return to play. It’s left everybody confident a season can be started and completed safely.
But James pointed out every plan works until there’s a glitch. And how MLB responds to the eventual glitch is going to determine whether or not the season is completed by crowning a World Series champion in October.
“We’re doing everything possible to mitigate risk to players and staff, but there’s no way to mitigate all risk,” James said. “We will likely encounter things we didn’t plan for. There’s no way to anticipate every hit or every scenario. Will we get through the season? We certainly hope so. But ultimately COVID will decide the outcome for this season and for every other sport.”
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