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Drayer: How Mariners, MLB have been able to stay on the field under extraordinary conditions

The Mariners have been able to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak and stay on the field. (Getty)

In the next few days, most teams in MLB will cross the midway point of their 60-game seasons. When 18 Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19 a month ago, forcing the suspension of their season, many thought the sport would not last the week.

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It hasn’t been easy and at times it has appeared messy, but baseball plays on. And while absolutely everything that is done while the coronavirus looms must be prefaced with “it could all change at any moment,” the fact that baseball is still playing should be seen as a significant accomplishment.

While it is easy to focus in on the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks and the 38 games postponed due to coronavirus concerns – neither of which should be overlooked – what also shouldn’t be overlooked is the vast majority of teams that for the most part have managed to keep the virus at bay and continue playing. It has been an enormous undertaking for all involved, much different from what we have seen with other sports.

When everything shut down in March, baseball was in the terrible position of not yet having started its season. While the NBA and NHL could restart in bubbles, isolating in one or more hub cities just wasn’t going to work for baseball because of the numbers involved and the combined length of Summer Camp, the regular season and postseason. That MLB has had more positive tests than the NBA or NHL shouldn’t be surprising because of the lack of a protective bubble. Baseball is being played in the real world and the fact that they have been able to keep the numbers down and adapt on the fly should be encouraging.

Early on in Summer Camp, T-Mobile Park was referred to sometimes as the “Mariners bubble.” Make no mistake, it wasn’t – and isn’t – a bubble. While there is an increased likelihood of safety due to strong protocols created by both the joint MLB/MLBPA agreement and the Mariners’ additional guidelines, which include testing every other day, social distancing, mask-wearing and strict travel rules, the players still leave the building every day, some going to the nearby team hotel and others to their homes. Bubble broken at that point, and the safety of the team, any team for that matter in baseball, is put in the hands of individuals.

Again, early on there were many who said that this would never work. You cannot expect that all players will be responsible when they leave their ballparks, be it to go home at the end of the day or traveling. Yet here we are one month into games and almost two months since the start of Summer Camp, and the testing numbers would indicate that either most teams have been extremely lucky or they are adhering to the rules.

This has been good for baseball and should bode well for the NFL, which has also chosen not to bubble. Baseball has answered many of the questions of whether or not playing and traveling outside of a bubble could work. While a big criticism of the protocols and procedures was that they didn’t have a specific plan in place at the onset for what they would do when there were positives, it seemed at the time that criticism was unfair. So much was unknown at that point.

How likely was it the virus would spread to the opponent’s side? What impact could swift and complete contact tracing have? How long would an affected team need to be isolated and how willing would they be to take on a makeup schedule that would involve multiple doubleheaders and weeks where they play more games than days? Baseball stayed flexible and came up with answers, and so baseball plays on.

The key to keeping baseball on the field in a pandemic is never letting up. What happened with the Marlins and Cardinals perhaps was an early wake-up call. It’s hard to believe that didn’t catch the attention of most individuals – clearly not Cleveland Indians starters Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger, the latter of which in particular falls into the bad teammate category after failing to reveal that he had gone out with Plesac after a game – and the MLB/MLBPA, which added to the already strict protocols after the early incidents. The biggest responsibility, however, remains in the clubhouses with the players and staff, according to Mariners manager Scott Servais.

“It’s important to continue to hold each other accountable,” Servais said, pointing out that player leaders have been key. “We have to abide by the rules and the protocol, otherwise we all get hurt. Trying to make the sacrifices, to suck it up a little bit for the good of the team and really the good of the sport. One team goes down now, it affects all kinds of teams. It really does affect the entire league.”

They have made it this far, you hope it continues. I have found myself looking at the players in a different way since they have returned to the field. Sure there are paychecks involved, but what has stood out to me is the desire to play. The creature comforts for an MLB’er are gone. The travel sounds downright awful with players confined to their seats, masked up on now quiet planes, and unable to leave hotels on the road without a valid reason given to a compliance officer. Meals in clubhouses and on planes are of the boxed variety. Road meals are in a designated hotel ballroom with one per table, all facing the same direction, or room service. In a normal year, Corey Seager would have stayed with his brother Kyle and family when the Dodgers were in town, and vice versa. As it was, the brothers were not permitted to see each other away from the ballparks.

Just as bittersweet, MLB debuts. The proudest day for a player and family ripped away from an entire class of rookies. The Mariners are doing their best to help make the day special by providing videos and video calls of the players’ families shortly after they leave their first game. It’s not the same, but they make their debuts and baseball plays on.

In that I find optimism. It has been an enormous undertaking by all involved. For the Mariners, the preparations began back in March when the team learned they would not be able to open at home because of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Kirkland. For the players it has meant accepting that nothing that was normal in their previous everyday baseball lives and routines was guaranteed to be the same, especially with the allowed time at the ballpark now much shorter in order to limit potential exposure.

None of this has been easy or normal for baseball but in 2020, what has been easy or normal for any of us? Baseball has found a way and while I am sure there will be collective breath-holding when NFL teams get on planes and opposing players crash into each other on football fields, they will do the same.

Back in July, Nationals closer Sean Doolittle expressed his concern for the rising number of coronavirus deaths in America and individuals not doing enough to flatten the curve.

“Sports are like the reward for a functional society,” he said.

He and others were uncomfortable with sports coming back with the much bigger issue, the virus, perhaps needing all of the attention. His words made a lot of sense at the time but maybe it was overlooked that sports, rather than being the reward, could be more of the example.

“We need help from the general public,” Doolittle continued at the time. “If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands. Like, we can’t have virus fatigue and think, ‘Well, it’s been four months. We’re over it. This has been enough time, right? We’ve waited long enough, shouldn’t sports come back now?’ No, there are things we have to do to bring this stuff back.”

Players have been wearing masks, washing their hands, social distancing and more. They’ve made sacrifices to play and they have overcome the fatigue of living under protocols to continue playing. It’s looked different, it’s sounded different, but it’s sports and what we have been watching is baseball.

Baseball under extraordinary conditions.

For all that has gone wrong, in light of the situation, it would be a shame to overlook what has gone right.

Follow Mariners insider Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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