The statistics on new daily COVID-19 cases paint a bleak picture, and Theo Epstein is known for being analytical. But the Cubs president of baseball operations isn’t just looking at the over 54,000 new cases in the U.S. over the past day, believed to be a new record.
“I think we’re better positioned now than we were in March or April to try to pull off a baseball season,” Epstein said on a video conference with local media Thursday. “Are we in control? Do we have a guarantee of success? Of course not, no. The pandemic is in control.”
Why does he think MLB is better positioned now than when the novel coronavirus shut down Spring Training? Testing capabilities and understanding of COVID-19.
Major League Baseball converted a lab in Utah, which the minor leagues had previously used for drug testing, into a COVID-19 testing center.
“We’re able to provide the type of testing that’s the volume and turnaround and accuracy of testing that is necessary to even consider this type of endeavor,” Epstein said. “And, they’re able to do it in a way that doesn’t take resources away from any essential workers in the country.”
When MLB suspended the season in March, it certainly wasn’t ready for the volume of testing that it has now committed to. The 2020 Operations Manual requires all Tier 1 individuals – players, manager, coaches, team physicians, athletic trainers, etc. – to take a diagnostic COVID-19 test every other day. Each team can designate up to 87 Tier 1 individuals.
Tier 2 individuals – clubhouse staff, remaining coaches and medical staff, traveling staff, front office employees, communication staff, head grounds keeper, security personnel assigned to restricted areas, etc. – must be tested multiple times a week.
MLB also committed to offering free COVID-19 testing to those who live with Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals, and healthcare workers or first responders in MLB cities.
“There’s some increased understanding of how the virus operates,” Epstein added, “and best practices to attempt to mitigate the spread.”
MLB consulted health experts in developing its health and safety protocols. This week, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and most recently Epstein expressed their confidence in the process that produced those protocols.
“Now, no protocols are fool-proof,” Epstein said. “…This is merely an exercise to see if we can put on a baseball season safely. So, it deserves all of our best efforts and full attention. It’s a responsibility to take very seriously, and we know that if it turns out that we can’t put on a baseball season safely, then we won’t proceed.”
Hottovy, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 despite diligently taking precautions, can attest to the fallibility of even the strictest protocols. He battled the virus for a month, and two weeks later he still hasn’t regained full strength or lung capacity.
“Tommy’s story illustrates that nobody is immune from coronavirus,” Epstein said, “and that while people who are young and healthy may do better on a percentage basis overall, it’s still quite dangerous, even potentially deadly for people of all ages and people in perfect health.
“Tommy is 38 years old, a former big-league player in great health, and there were times talking to him through the course of this struggle that he sounded like an elderly person fighting for breath.”
MLB’s testing capacity and understanding of COVID-19 may have improved since March, but not everything has changed for the better. Florida set a new daily record Thursday, with over 10,000 new cases of COVID-19. Texas, Arizona and California are also seeing a rise in new cases.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced an emergency travel order on Thursday, which will require travelers coming from several states with COVID-19 surges (including Florida, Texas, Arizona and California) to quarantine for 14 days. The order will go into effect on Monday.
As Epstein said, COVID-19 has control.
“Every single person in the organization,” Epstein said, “every player, ever staff member, everyone in uniform, out of uniform, we all have to make great decisions, exercise great discipline, hold each other accountable, collaborate, go into it with an open mind and exercise real personal and collective responsibility.”
Yes, for the sake of baseball. But more importantly, for the sake of the people risking their health to put on a season.