They came so close.
For 58 days, Major League Baseball avoided a positive coronavirus test among its hundreds of players. As the playoffs unfolded, the player pool shrank and its teams were shuffled into luxe isolation, the protocols and the logistics and the myriad sacrifices that went into staging this unprecedented season built a kind of momentum that made the whole operation seem invulnerable.
And so it was — almost to the last out.
What could have been a well-earned coda to an emotionally wrenching season for MLB and its 2020 champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers, instead ended with a pair of gut punches — one of them self-inflicted.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner’s positive test for the coronavirus, resulting in his abrupt removal from Game 6 of the World Series after seven innings, was a stunning development, given the relative isolation the players and their families have been in for most of the past month.
Since the first week of October, the Dodgers have hardly budged from their 4,000-acre, suburban Dallas luxury accommodations, speaking glowingly of well-rounded continental breakfasts, team-bonding moments, even Clayton Kershaw enjoying the surreal wake-up call of rotation mate Walker Buehler chipping golf balls outside his door.
And still a key subtext of this season — can MLB, with its billions of dollars in resources and access to bottomless and rapidly processed COVID-19 tests, keep its players safe from the virus? — suffered an unsettling blow at the 11th hour.
It’s hard to imagine how Turner — who turned up with one inconclusive and one positive test in 24 hours — contracted the virus while quarantined with his wife and teammates in a highly secured environment. Hopefully, we will find out, because nine months into this pandemic, we are still learning about this virus.
MLB revealed on Wednesday that Turner refused to remain in isolation after the Dodgers beat the Rays.
“Following the Dodgers’ victory, it is clear that Turner chose to disregard the agreed-upon joint protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others,” MLB said in a statement released Wednesday.
“While a desire to celebrate is understandable, Turner’s decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came in contact with at risk. When MLB security raised the matter of being on the field with Turner, he emphatically refused to comply.”
If there was some greater good to MLB consuming more than 100,000 tests to get through 60 games and a postseason, it’s that we could go to school on what worked and did not work as it shuttled its teams through a far less controlled environment than the NBA’s unsullied slice of heaven in Orlando.
Transparency is key. And that also includes a bit greater clarity on how and why Turner was allowed to leave a designated isolation room at Globe Life Field and join his teammates for the championship-clinching postgame celebration after his positive test was revealed.
A handful of teammates and club president Andrew Friedman offered myriad and largely lame explanations for a jarring visual — Turner, sometimes masked, sometimes not, mugging for the team photo and hugging teammates.
Here’s an exclusive look at Justin Turner celebrating on the field after testing positive for COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/EvhQqFUw35— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 28, 2020
Friedman leaned on the fact that Turner was largely surrounded by teammates with whom he was quarantining or had been in contact with. The team will have multiple rounds of testing before leaving Texas.
Yet, an on-field post-championship celebration is not a bubble. There are photographers and camera crews and league officials, not all of them locked down with the Dodgers. The threat of infecting a teammate or teammate’s family member was real.
What’s more, there are millions of people watching on television, all having just learned of Turner’s positive test, only to see him mingling and mugging. For the millions who have been locked down, distanced, unable to access testing or see loved ones, it was a galling image.
Hey, the circumstances are terrible, especially for a franchise pillar. It’s heartbreaking to ponder Turner stuck in isolation while his teammates celebrate the greatest professional achievement of their lives.
But the more than 226,000 Americans killed by this virus, the many more with permanent damage and the psychological and economic ramifications of COVID-19 are far worse. This is a pandemic, not the last day of school, certainly not the time for adults to look the other way while the kids flout a few rules.
It’s not like stars have never been deprived of a championship celebration. Cincinnati Reds great Eric Davis was hospitalized with a lacerated kidney suffered during Game 4 of the 1990 World Series when his club dogpiled on the field. His championship ring is just as shiny.
It is weird to consider the season finally over — a year that began with an industry shutdown, followed by a labor fight, followed by dozens of positive COVID-19 tests during summer intake, and the devastating outbreaks suffered by the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals that threatened the season before it fully got off the ground.
Significant mistakes were made. There were times it seemed commissioner Rob Manfred — who said he’s “not a quitter” when the Cardinals’ season teetered — would plow through to the finish regardless of decimated teams or the magnitude of the virus in the 27 markets that allowed MLB to play.
But also, errors were corrected. Protocols were tightened. Staying safe became a symbol of being a good teammate, to the point the Cleveland Indians possibly cost themselves a division title when they punished two pitchers — and traded one — after they stepped out on the town.
It felt like a lot of that good was betrayed in the waning moments before the league scattered for the offseason. If nothing else, it served as a reminder of what’s in store in 2021.
Baseball will be back. The coronavirus will be, too. Act accordingly.
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