MLB’s cautionary tale is ready to return


Maybe the worst of it, Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said on the other side of a week in which his roster was felled by the coronavirus and therefore overhauled, in which there were wispy rumors of poor behavior, in which so much of the conversation was about the mess the Marlins had made of things, was that hardly anyone stopped to ask about how those young men were. If they were going to be OK. And their families.

The roster, he granted, was hit hard. Players and personnel were careless, he said, at the very least. It was, and maybe remains, kind of a mess. These are the facts.

And still, he said, “These guys are sick,” some more than others, and so part of a crisis that by Monday counted 4.7 million pitchers, outfielders, catchers and other very real people.

It’s not so easy to forget. Yet, perhaps, what soothes a jittery nation is a case of COVID-19 explained away by a reckless act, real or imagined, whispered or flipped onto Twitter.

“They’ve been stricken with a virus that has no cure other than to run its course,” Jeter said. “Our players and coaches went into this knowing that their health was on the line. Unfortunately they have had to endure quite a trying time over the last week plus. We have seen first-hand just how contagious this virus is.”

The view came with the loss of a good-sized chunk of an already fragile season. For that, after what he said were investigations by the organization and the league, Jeter said they were far from blameless. 

Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, who wore a mask during an intrasquad game during summer camp, said a 'false sense of security' on the team led to the outbreak that derailed their season. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, who wore a mask during an intrasquad game during summer camp, said a 'false sense of security' on the team led to the outbreak that derailed their season. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, who wore a mask during an intrasquad game during summer camp, said a ‘false sense of security’ on the team led to the outbreak that derailed their season. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

“Some of our traveling party had a false sense of security and comfort in how they handled themselves when they left Miami,” he said. “We did have a couple individuals leave the hotel. In our review it was determined we had guys leave to get coffee, to get clothes. A guy left to have dinner at a teammate’s house. There were no other guests on site. There was no salacious activity. There was no hanging out at bars. No clubs. No running around Atlanta. No running around the town. What it boiled down to on this particular trip, guys were around each other, they got relaxed and they let their guard down. They were getting together in groups. They weren’t wearing masks as much as they should have. They weren’t social distancing.

“There is no way to identify how this got into our clubhouse. But any activities on Tuesday night [in Atlanta] were not it. The entire traveling party is responsible for not following the protocols as instructed. That includes coaches, staff and players. Everyone has seen the impact. They’ve seen their teammates get sick. … Hopefully this has been a wake-up call for everyone.”

First came the sense they were leaving a place and a routine that, based on the tests, had been good to them, and they to it.

“It definitely felt different when we left Miami,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Monday, the eve of his team’s first baseball game in nine days. “As soon as I got on the bus, it just wasn’t the same.”

They went through Atlanta, played two exhibition games there, and early one morning bused 32 players to a hotel in Philadelphia. When the Marlins left that hotel for good, three games and eight days later, a bus bound for Baltimore held just 13 players.

“All of a sudden you were going to be outside of your little bubble of going to the ballpark, going to your house,” Mattingly said. “And now we’re at the mercy of not only taking care of ourselves, which is our fault, but now you’re on a bus and you’re on a plane and you’re in a hotel and you’re at a ballpark and you’re on another plane and you’re on another bus.”

When the Marlins attempt to restart their season Tuesday night in a game that will be threatened by rainstorms in Baltimore, their roster, from one game to the next, will have turned over 20 players. Their general manager, Michael Hill, recited from memory Monday how they’d rebuilt a roster decimated by the coronavirus and, they’d all admit, various and regrettable breaches of protocol.

In less than a week, Hill had made three waiver claims, traded for two players, signed a free agent, reinstated two players, recalled three players and selected four others. Taxi squaders became regulars. Players arrived in Baltimore from Jupiter, Florida, site of the Marlins’ alternate training facility, and from other parts of the country and, of course, those 13 from Philadelphia.

“Some of these guys,” Mattingly said, “I’ve never met.”

When the Marlins resume play in Baltimore, manager Don Mattingly will be working with a roster depleted and then hastily transformed amid an outbreak. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)When the Marlins resume play in Baltimore, manager Don Mattingly will be working with a roster depleted and then hastily transformed amid an outbreak. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
When the Marlins resume play in Baltimore, manager Don Mattingly will be working with a roster depleted and then hastily transformed amid an outbreak. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Regarded as likely a last-place team in the National League East at full strength, the Marlins should gradually return most or all of their frontline players. Jeter said Monday that of the 18 infected, all either had mild or no symptoms. In the meantime, the organization would scratch together a roster it hoped would be presentable in spite of its diminished numbers and the better part of a week spent on dry hotel room swings and Zoom yoga classes.

“We expect to be competitive when we take the field,” Jeter said. “And, yeah, we’ve been hit hard. I think I said this before spring training even started, it’s gonna be a test on the depth of everyone’s organization. No different when guys get hurt during the course of the season, you’re going to have to have others step in.

“To have 18 players taken out at once, it’s a challenge for us. But our guys are looking forward to the challenge.”

They were the first in Major League Baseball to endure multiple positive tests in the regular season, bringing a week-long quarantine and a scheduling nightmare for the league that impacted four other teams. (The St. Louis Cardinals, a few days later, also were temporarily shut down, and on Monday the league announced 13 members of the organization were COVID-19 positive. They won’t play again until Friday at the earliest.)

The Marlins, meanwhile, had become emblematic of a league that dared to take on the pandemic outside of a bubble. They didn’t make it through their third game. The Phillies did not have a player test positive and were isolated for a week. The Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays had no one to play. The New York Yankees sat out two games and so did the Orioles, due to rescheduling.

Given the dire condition of a country that has been overwhelmed by the virus, a country that hasn’t entirely embraced a way out, that has had its own spin with a false sense of security, Mattingly was asked if the Marlins weren’t a little unlucky.

“No,” he said. “You can’t say unlucky. You have to take the blame for what’s happened to us.”

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