Nationals again question MLB's handling of COVID-19 amid Marlins outbreak

Hannah Keyser

The reigning champion Washington Nationals signaled on Tuesday that there’s growing dissension among the player ranks over MLB's handling of safety during the coronavirus pandemic. And with the health situation in the country unlikely to stabilize in the near future, it could set up a future showdown over whether the league can force players to assume an uncomfortable level of risk for the sake of keeping the season moving.

In a team meeting led by manager Dave Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo, the “vast majority” of Nationals players reportedly voted against going to Miami for this weekend’s originally scheduled series out of concern for their own health.

Four Marlins players received news they had tested positive for the coronavirus prior to Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, which then went on as scheduled. Now, 15 Marlins players — or half the roster — have tested positive, forcing the suspension of their season until at least Monday. Two Phillies' games against the New York Yankees were also postponed this week.

The Nationals, who lost star outfielder Juan Soto to a positive test prior to their opening night game, were scheduled to travel to Miami for a three-game series beginning Friday night.

The results of the Nationals’ vote is compelling but toothless. The terms of the March Agreement between the league and the Players Association grants commissioner Rob Manfred sole power to adjust the schedule out of safety concerns.

“These player votes are just eye wash,” a league official said Tuesday.

Of course, the league announced Tuesday afternoon it is shuffling the schedule to keep the Marlins from playing again until Monday, which would at least postpone the Nationals’ games against Miami. The Marlins remain quarantined in Philadelphia. But the Nationals’ vote is nonetheless indicative of players’ uncertainty over the league’s approach to the outbreak.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, left, and manager Dave Martinez have expressed concerns about MLB's testing system and fears about playing during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, left, and manager Dave Martinez have expressed concerns about MLB's testing system and fears about playing during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

For now, the Nats are in D.C., where they will host the Blue Jays this week. First as the home team and then as the visiting team in their own stadium as Toronto, displaced by Canada’s concern for international travel during the pandemic, plays a “home” opener on the road while waiting for a stadium in Buffalo to be made Major League-ready.

This isn’t the first time since baseball’s recent resumption that the reigning champions antagonized the commissioner's office by calling out unacceptable circumstances in the plans to keep players safe. Rizzo issued a sharply worded statement early in summer camp criticizing the league for botching the test result returns over July 4th. MLB, reportedly, considered that to be insubordination.

Following that first weekend, the testing mostly stabilized and the messaging largely unified. Players and managers reiterated their faith in the protocols — but that was all before the outbreak on the Marlins and the mismanagement that followed. Now, Phillies manager Joe Girardi has expressed regret for fielding his team after the initial rash of positive tests and outfielder Andrew McCutchen has called out the lack of communication.

Martinez, the Nationals manager who has a heart condition, said he is scared. Dodgers pitcher David Price tweeted that part of the reason he opted out of the season was “players health wasn’t being put first.” 

And now the Nationals. With the Marlins’ schedule paused until next week, this particular confrontation will be avoided, but further outbreaks could bring further flare-ups. Players can’t refuse to participate in scheduled games without opting out of the season altogether or effectively going on a “wildcat strike.”

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