91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baseball Made It, So Far, Through A Pandemic. Football Hopes To Follow

The Minnesota Twins celebrate being the American League Central Division champions after the game against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday in Minneapolis.
Hannah Foslien
Getty Images
The Minnesota Twins celebrate being the American League Central Division champions after the game against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday in Minneapolis.

For Major League Baseball, it's on to the postseason.

This year, that's saying a lot.

The sport wrapped up its regular season Sunday and got through it without being in a protective bubble like other leagues. There were COVID-19 outbreaks and postponed games.

There still could be problems in the playoffs.

But baseball made it this far. And another league not in a bubble, the NFL, is trying to duplicate that success.

"Like defusing a bomb"

It has been a nerve-wracking season for baseball's medical director, Dr. Gary Green. Especially at about 10 o'clock each night. That's when he gets the email with the day's coronavirus test results.

"It's like defusing a bomb opening that email," Green said, "just waiting to see what the next day's going to be like depending on what the results are."

Lately, the results have been really good.

Zero positives among players for 28 straight days.

Compare that to where the game was less than a week into its start-up in late July.

Outbreaks and a warning

Baseball was barely out of the gate when the Miami Marlins had a COVID-19 outbreak that observers said put the young season on the brink.

It was followed by an outbreak among the St. Louis Cardinals, which then was followed by a warning from MLB headquarters: Break COVID-19 protocols and you face fines and suspension. Clubs adopted their own codes of conduct. After two members of the Cleveland Indians — pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac — broke the rules and left their team hotel on a road trip, they were banished, for a time, to an alternate training site.

And their teammates reacted angrily.

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor released a statement calling for his teammates to be selfless.

"I think all the players realize that each individual holds the season in their hands," said Green, the MLB medical director. "And people making bad decisions affect not only them, but their families and teammates and the whole season. It's been very nice to see how seriously they've taken it."

Along with its warning, MLB took steps to strengthen its COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Adding compliance officers helped, Green said, with them essentially acting as hall monitors who made sure players behaved on the road — staying in their seats on flights, wearing face masks consistently. Baseball also improved its contact tracing, which helped limit the virus's spread.

"Most of the outbreaks have just been one or two players at the most," Green said, "and we've been able to contain that relatively quickly."

So the games went on, although 45 of them were postponed. Almost all were made up later, in abbreviated doubleheaders with each game lasting seven innings instead of the usual nine. There were 55 doubleheaders this season, the most since 1984.

Success didn't just happen

The NFL is three weeks into its non-bubbled season. Teams are playing in their home cities and traveling.

And, similar to baseball, the league's having success against the virus.

The most recent testing of more than 2,400 football players returned zero positive results.

"I'm delighted to see those numbers," said Dr. Thom Mayer. He's the medical director for the NFL Players Association and someone who likes to draw on literature and history to make a point.

He noted that President Dwight Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to 1961, once famously said: "The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground during my administration. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened – by God, it didn't just happen!"

"And these [testing] numbers didn't just happen," Mayer said. "They were the result of careful planning, [a] careful system approach, treating it as an ecosystem, understanding it's a risk mitigation, not risk elimination concept."

Football, he agreed, is a perfect storm for transmitting the virus.

"One could not design an activity or sport," he said, "where essentially face-to-face combat, guys in the trenches are blowing in each other's face for 158.5 snaps per game."

But so far, NFL players have been successful not bringing the virus to the field.

They're tested daily, except game day. And like baseball players and most other professional athletes, football players understand the seriousness of adhering to protocols. In fact, most of those who are part of the league are doing their parts to mitigate the risk — with a few visible exceptions.

Seattle's Pete Carroll and Las Vegas' Jon Gruden were two of a handful of head coaches observed not wearing face masks during televised games. That violated the rule that all personnel in a team's bench area on the sidelines of a stadium have to wear masks, except players.

"Personally, I have to adapt," Carroll said when asked about his noncompliance. "I [have to] fix some things to stay in compliance and I just need to do better. Our guys wear masks in all our walk-throughs, in the meetings, and we all do. I just did a poor job game time."

"I'm very sensitive about it, but I'm calling plays," Gruden said after a game. "If I get fined I will have to pay. But, I apologize."

Gruden, Carroll and the others were fined — $100,000 each. Their teams had to pay $250,000.

That's serious money, Mayer said. And justified.

"We were very pleased to see the league reacted strongly," he said, adding, "leadership is a non-delegable responsibility. The head coach is the head coach. And those behaviors are in my opinion irresponsible. It's my hope [team owners] and the NFL continue to understand that we can't have one set of protocols for some people and a different one for the people who putatively are leading the club. They should be an example and not someone who's fined."

Mayer says as the NFL goes forward this season, it needs to be ready to adapt and react.

It can't, like baseball, slap together a doubleheader to make up for postponed games. Mayer says there've been conversations about possible contingencies in case of outbreaks, such as lengthening the season, moving to alternative [game] sites, or scheduling games every other weekend.

Jordan Lyles of the Texas Rangers throws against the Houston Astros in the final game of the regular season on Sunday.
Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jordan Lyles of the Texas Rangers throws against the Houston Astros in the final game of the regular season on Sunday.

No celebrating until the final out

Baseball, meanwhile, begins the postseason on Tuesday, with a chance to build on its COVID success.

The later rounds of the playoffs will be in bubbles — neutral sites in Texas and Southern California that will help limit travel and contact with those outside the game.

On the other hand, the postseason has a tight schedule with few breaks, meaning not as much room to postpone and reschedule.

It's why Green says he won't celebrate until the last out of the World Series, when he won't have to worry about defusing any more emails.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.