Almanac Baseball: Strike out – Major League Baseball takes a hit from COVID-19

Whilst conversation in the AFL states has been consumed once more by Toby Greene, in the United States the story of a much larger existential threat to sport is unfolding. Unsurprisingly, it relates to the rolling challenge of COVID-19.


As northern hemisphere countries open up and sporting competitions move away from keeping their players locked in luxury golf resorts, leagues and teams are facing the new challenge of delivering a season whilst the Delta variant of COVID-19 circulates widely within the community.


Last Tuesday night looked like a typical late-season Major League Baseball (MLB) game at the Tropicana Field in St Petersburg, Florida. Under the domed roof of ‘the Trop’ (which looks like an upside-down salad bowl mixed with a circus tent), league leaders the Tampa Bay Rays were hosting the Boston Red Sox.


The game is in the bottom of the second. That is, the Rays are having their bat in the second innings. Red Sox are out to an early lead, with a single run to the Ray’s no score.


Suddenly, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts receives a wave from coach Alex Cora. He quietly leaves the field. The move to pull (or ‘lift’ in baseball terms) Bogaerts was perplexing. He’s the leading hitter in the struggling Red Sox side and contributed to the opening innings’ run.


Unfortunately for Bogaerts, a positive COVID-19 test result had come through mid-game. Off the field and into isolation for the star!


The Red Sox went on to lose the game five runs to eight.


(As an aside, the ‘X-Man’ or ‘Bogey’ is a native of the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba. In 2011 at age 19, he received a knighthood from the Dutch Government. He said of the experience, “Yeah, it was sick.”[1])


Bogaerts was not an isolated case. When the Red Sox left Boston on Thursday 26 September for a series of games on the road there were no cases on the team bus. By the following Tuesday, they had lost eight players and three staff members to either positive tests or isolation as close contacts.[2]


The Red Sox’s ‘Chief Baseball Officer’ Chaim Bloom was left pained by the situation. Bloom told “It’s gut-wrenching… [I feel] a lot of responsibility to every single person in our traveling party and our organization. When our powers to prevent something like this from happening and continuing to happen only go so far, that’s a bad feeling.”[3]


The organisation had to rapidly shift focus from fighting for a playoff spot to managing the ‘Red Sox COVID outbreak’, including delving into the minor leagues to fill their roster. Coach Alex Cora was pragmatic about the COVID-19 disruptions but admits to being pretty over it, “You have to deal with it. You have to keep going and then readjust… I’m hating to talk about it. I’m kind of like, we need to start playing baseball and focusing on baseball.”[4] Yes Alex, we are all sick of COVID-19.


Under MLB rules, COVID-19 positive players must quarantine for at least 10 days before league medical officials can approve their return. In some cases, vaccinated players can return sooner.[5] Other teams such as the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals have also been struck down with significant COVID-19 outbreaks. In response, the MLB has postponed nine games this year due to COVID-19 posing an unacceptable health and safety risk.[6]


The Red Sox have already copped some heat for not reaching the MLB’s target threshold of 85 per cent players and officials vaccinated. They are among seven of the 30 MLB teams who have not achieved the target, a threshold which allows some relaxation of COVID-19 protocols.[7]


Like nearly all things COVID-19, the question of vaccination is a vexed one for sport. Whilst the MLB and NBA are focusing on incentives to get players vaccinated, the NFL and its Players Association is taking a harder line. The NFL won’t catch up games cancelled due to unvaccinated players and the coach of the Jacksonville team even suggested he would take vaccination status into account for selection decisions.[8]


Picture it for a moment. Steve Smith padded up at the crease, late on a crumbling day four SCG pitch. The fading summer light yellows his grass-stained whites. He’s courageously holding the tail together, with the team chasing an unlikely fourth innings total. The scoreboard marks 95 against his name. The crowd quietly murmurs away.


Suddenly the coach ‘JL’ is jumping and gesticulating wildly in the old green stand. News just in from pathology – you’re out of the test Steve, COVID-19 positive! The fourth player in as many days is heading for iso! That evening the call goes out to Sydney’s grade cricketers. ‘Are you free tomorrow? We’re running a few short at the SCG…’


This may all be a bit of lark on my part but on another level it is deadly serious. How many substitutes can a team make if it experiences a COVID-19 outbreak during a test match? No easy feat to manage in a contest which can last five days…


The challenge will be fundamentally different to the COVID-19 trials of the past. In 2020 and 2021, the name of the game was to avoid hotspots, isolate and negotiate with State politicians. Going forward it will be about keeping players COVID-19 free and on the field. This is one ‘industry’ which can’t default to working from home if a team member contracts COVID.


For now, the main debate ahead of the summer Ashes seems to be whether England will be allowed to have partners and family travelling on the same conditions as the players. More generally, it’s nigh impossible to predict how Australia’s state borders will look in two to three months’ time.


The northern hemisphere team sports are forerunners to the challenges our sporting codes will face We would do well to watch their experiences closely.








[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.



The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE



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About Lindsay Smelt

I am a writer, historian and economist based on the Victorian surf coast. I'm writing a new biography of the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon – bringing Gordon’s extraordinary tale to life for a new generation. My work reveals new insights about Gordon, including the story of his birth and detailed discussion of his battles with mental health. I studied at the University of Melbourne and also currently work as an energy and environmental economist.


  1. Brian The Ruminator says

    That scare with the X Man threatened to send the Sox season into a tailspin. But the way they came back to level the series v the Rays and then get the first 2 v the Indians at home, including a walk off today, is a testament to the Fenway spirit.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Fine piece, Lindsay, with some thought-provoking reflections. As an MLB fan myself, I appreciated your focus on that sport as a Covid case-in-point.

    On a much lighter note, I had to smile at your description of the Rays’ ball park: “looks like an upside-down salad bowl mixed with a circus tent”. Amusing stuff – this place is really quite tutti-frutti, isn’t it?

  3. Thanks for the comments Brian the Ruminator and Kevin!

    Brian – as might have been implied by my choice of case study, I am also a big Red Sox fan! Such an up and down season but hoping for a strong finish.

    Kevin – glad you enjoyed the piece. haha it is a bit tutti frutti indeed! The variety of the ballparks is certainly one of the endearing features of the game. Hope you enjoy the MLB playoffs!

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