When baseball returns Friday morning in South Philadelphia, Joe Girardi will be three weeks from managing his first game with the Phillies.
The path to his first season was already arduous. Spring training was canceled by a pandemic, a two-week delay to the season became a three-month pause, and a three-week summer camp for a 60-game season came equipped with 101-pages of social-distancing guidelines.
Reaching opening day, let alone playing the season, will be a challenge. But for Girardi, his first season in Philadelphia became even more difficult Thursday.
The Phillies, according to a source, placed four players -- Scott Kingery, Hector Neris, Tommy Hunter, and Ranger Suarez, - on the COVID-19 Related Injured List on the eve of their first team workout.
MLB rules dictate that a player can be placed on the COVID-19 list if he tests positive for coronavirus, shows symptoms, or comes in contact with an infected person. The Phillies conducted coronavirus screenings this week for all players and staff at Citizens Bank Park.
Kingery was slated to be the starting second baseman, Neris returned as the closer, Hunter was the lone major-league free agent signed to the bullpen, and Suarez was competing for the final spot in the starting rotation.
All four were to play key roles for a Phillies team with postseason hopes. And now their status for opening day - which is either July 23 or July 24 -- is uncertain. Girardi said he does not have a timetable for their return.
The Phillies announced the transactions Thursday morning, simply listing on their website that each player was “placed on the 10-day injured list retroactive to June 30, 2020.” The moves were not announced through the usual channels or with the usual details that the team uses to disseminate injury updates.
Major League Baseball has instructed teams not to disclose if a player is placed on the COVID-19 list because the virus ”is not considered an employment-related injury.” Instead, MLB will defer to the players wishes if they want their health status to be public.
“What I can tell you is they’re on the injured list, and that’s about all I can tell you,” Girardi said. “MLB has given protocols on how to handle it.”
General manager Matt Klentak said Monday that the Phillies were expecting to place “a handful at minimum” on the COVID-19 list after the team had a coronavirus outbreak last month at its training facility in Clearwater, Fla. If a player tests positive, he must self-isolate and test negative twice in a 24-hour span.
Even if the team expected Thursday’s transactions, it was still dismaying news just a day before the opening of camp. But news like Thursday’s -- four key players out an indefinite amount of time -- would carry much greater consequences during the season.
Girardi said he agreed with Mets manager Luis Rojas, who told reporters that a player would need at least three weeks to recover following a positive test. If so, an in-season infection could take a player away for a third of a season.
“if you’re quarantined for 14 days, you’re probably not feeling great and you’re probably not going to be doing a lot of things in either your hotel room or your small apartment,” Girardi said.
“I guess you could put the mattress against the wall and throw [the ball] against the mattress, but you’re not going to be doing much. So it’s going to take time to get them back in baseball shape and that’s probably why his thinking was three weeks.”
More players across the league will likely be placed on the COVID-19 list as camps open this weekend. That’s expected. But if infections among players spike, more players could join the short list of players who decided earlier this week to not play this season because of concerns about the coronavirus.
The league may be able to stomach a growing list of infections, but continuing on with the season could be difficult if more and more players decide to stay home.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a player opted out,” Girardi said. “Let’s just say someone in his family had an underlying condition or even if he had an underlying condition or a coach had an underlying condition. I have got no inclination that anyone on our roster was going to do that.
“But I won’t be surprised if somebody else does it because there’s a lot of health issues that players and players’ families go through that maybe none of us know about that person might rethink what they’re doing. And I would completely understand that.”
The Phillies will begin their workout Friday morning with half of their group at Citizens Bank Park while the other half is shuttled across Broad Street to FDR Park. Those groups will be replaced in the afternoon by two more groups. The groups will be broken off into even smaller groups to provide social distancing. Spitting, hugging, and high-fives will be banned.
The Phillies -- a summertime ritual -- will finally return to South Philadelphia. The regular season will be just three weeks away, but Thursday was a reminder of how long and challenging those three weeks could be.
“For me, it comes down to really how socially responsible we are as an industry, as a state, and as a country. I think we can do it,” Girardi said. “Do I think there will be players who get COVID-19? Absolutely.
“I think with the protocols MLB has with the testing of players, the protocols before you come to the ballpark, and the protocols you do while you’re at the ballpark, the contact tracing that we do, I think we will have cases. Hopefully, they will be really containable and we can pull this off.”