Cubs, MLB face ‘uncomfortable' truth trying to pull off pandemic season


Encouraging test results and a return to formal team practices Friday for the first time since March softened some of the edges and emotions.

But spring training in July, at Wrigley Field, during a pandemic — with box lunches in the stands, temperature checks at the gate and masks at all times in the clubhouse — isn’t likely to feel any less strange anytime soon than it did on Major League Baseball’s first toe dip into a 2020 restart.

“We have so many guys in camp, and these next 10 days, two weeks — even the whole camp — there’s some anxiety that comes with it,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said during a Zoom session with reporters after the Cubs finished their first day of Spring Training 2.0 Friday afternoon.

“I’m not the type of person that lives with a lot of high anxiety with the what-ifs, just because it would drive me [up] the wall,” added Rizzo, a cancer survivor who considers his immune system “up to par if not stronger than it was” before he beat the disease more than a decade ago.

“I know [my wife] Emily and I do what we need to do to stay in our bubble and to stay safe, and all the guys know that this is something that is so unpredictable.”

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Intake testing so far for the Cubs has produced no positive tests, manager David Ross said before Friday’s practice.

And with 3,185 tests of players and staff around baseball completed, MLB on Friday reported 38 positives (1.2 percent), including 31 players. MLB said 19 different teams had positives (some teams had not received all their test results as of the report, including, reportedly, the White Sox and Brewers).

That’s as good as anyone in baseball — certainly in Chicago — had a right to expect as they opened practices during a time of steeply rising COVID-19 rates in MLB-centric states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

Now comes the hard part — with words like “trust” and “accountability” a theme of conversations with Cubs officials this week and players Friday.

“Are there going to be things that are abnormal? Absolutely,” Rizzo said. “Uncomfortable? Yes. But I think it’s just a step in the right direction of getting back, and as long as we can do it as safe as possible — MLB and our union is doing the best that we can to navigate the storm.”

The Cubs are in a position of strength, both in sheer numbers of healthy players and, it appears, enough mature, veteran attitudes to have a chance to maintain the group discipline necessary to keep it that way.

But just how big an undertaking this task will be for all involved was evident this week as the Phillies sidelined four players because of the coronavirus and as Angels manager Joe Maddon said nine of his players were unavailable for an undisclosed reasons — which suggests COVID-19-related issues with several, if not all, of those Angels players (teams are restricted in what information they can release on coronavirus cases).


The game’s best player, Mike Trout of the Angels, wore a mask even on the field as he practiced Friday and told reporters, “I still don’t feel comfortable,” and — with his wife pregnant with their first child — left open the possibility of opting out of playing this season.

“We all want to play,” Trout said. “If there’s an outbreak or something happens these next few weeks, we’ve got to reconsider.”

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, whose wife has a pre-existing condition that puts her at higher risk for severe reaction to the coronavirus, told ABC7 in Washington on Thursday that he’s leaning toward playing but “not “entirely” sure he will by the time the season begins.

And former Cubs and White Sox catcher Welington Castillo on Friday became the fifth player known to have formally opted out — the third Nationals player to do so.

The Cubs already have had their scared-straight moment with the virus when 38-year-old pitching coach Tommy Hottovy — a physically fit, healthy, recent major-league athlete — endured a harrowing, monthlong bout with the virus. 

RELATED: Why MLB should fear Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy's bout with COVID-19

Hottovy, who talked again with the team Friday to emphasize how serious and unpredictable the virus is, still estimates he’s only back to 80 percent strength nearly three weeks after testing negative.

Cubs center fielder Ian Happ is one of several Cubs who suggested Hottovy’s experience will have an impact on players’ perspective. “Huge impact,” he said. 

“The initial [COVID-19 test] numbers coming back were very good,” Happ said, adding: “The protocols are great. They’re very extensive. And I think it’s going to be on every individual team to follow those as closely as possible.”

But “uncomfortable” figures to be the word of the day, every day, if the Cubs and the rest of the  sports world is able to pull this off. It's a big reason why former Cubs catcher John Baker, the team's mental skills director, has Tier 1 clearance and access to players — reserved for the most essential playing, coaching and medical personnel.

“As soon as you’re comfortable, that’s when you should be uncomfortable,” Ross said of how his team — and others — must navigate the storm.. “The little details that we’re going to have to pay attention to are going to matter a great deal.”


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