How pro sports are making pandemic-era play work

The moment it became apparent that professional sports might actually be able to negotiate the obstacle course laid out by COVID-19 arrived last week, inside a Westin hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

There, two Cleveland Indians pitchers — Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger — slipped away to enjoy a Saturday night on the town, without permission and in clear violation of the protocols established by Major League Baseball. And it was there that their team and their teammates established that in 2020, the Year of the Virus, things were, officially, different.

There had long been an assumption that the boys-will-be-boys culture that predominates sports would be sports’ biggest impediment, after all. How do you keep young, invincible athletes, used to believing every city and every road trip is a golden ticket stamped for adventure, corralled inside a hotel on Saturday night?

Beyond: How do you penetrate the wall of silence that has ruled every locker room and clubhouse since the beginning of time? The credo is as old as sports itself and has long been an inviolate code: “What you see in here, what you say in here, let it stay in here, when you leave here.”

The team stepped forward first, sending Plesac back to Cleveland immediately, then ordering Clevinger into quarantine after he’d reluctantly admitted his involvement — after flying on the team plane.

Now, this was not a routine decision. Plesac and Clevinger represent two-fifths of the Indians’ pitching rotation. Plesac had been brilliant in three starts, pitching to a 1.29 ERA, a 0.667 WHIP, 24 strikeouts in 21 innings. And Clevinger has been a stalwart, going 42-22 with a 2.96 ERA the last three seasons.

Didn’t matter: They haven’t pitched since. And when Plesac decided it would be a good idea to mouth off in a video (shot while driving, no less) in which he blamed his problems on the media, the Indians responded by sending both pitchers to their alternate site — a demotion to the minors in a summer with no minor leagues, a move with severe potential financial ramifications for the players and competitive consequences for the club.

That, alone, was impressive.

What followed was even more: Members of the Indians took turns denouncing their teammates, in public, on the record. Fellow pitcher Adam Plutko: “They lied to us.” Pitcher Shane Bieber: “They screwed up.” Star shortstop Francisco Lindor: “This is a time to be selfless. . . . It’s about your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor.”

This assures nothing, of course: MLB has already had three different teams — the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds — shut down swaths of their schedule because of outbreaks and feared outbreaks. And the Mets had their game in Miami canceled Thursday because one player and one staff member tested positive, and that also puts this weekend’s Subway Series in question.

The virus is like a stubborn clubfighter: plodding forward, unrelenting, always capable of sneaking an uppercut to the jaw that can floor you.

And, in baseball parlance, mentioning success in this battle is like talking about a no-hitter in progress: Once you invite the jinx in, you’re doomed.

Still, this shows how committed most pro athletes are to their craft, to their profession. Yes, the NBA and NHL bubbles have produced outstanding results — so far — and while it might be predictable that such a safe environment would promote such good news, the truth is these millionaire athletes have committed to live relatively spartan lives for the duration.

And the NFL, with no bubble per se, has seen its members create hyper-safe work conditions that, in the most recent round of tests, yielded but 15 positive results for 2,500 players — a 0.006 rate.

College sports, of course, is a different story, and the Big Ten and Pac 12 have already canceled football out of a preponderance of caution — understandable, given the workforce is comprised (in theory, anyway) of unpaid amateurs.

But pro sports? The devotion of the athletes has, thus far, carried the day. Athletes who violate protocols, inside bubbles or out, have been dealt with swiftly. Accountability has, thus far, been standard operating procedure.

This can change at any time — remember: Respect the no-hitter. But for now? For now, pro sports is winning. And that feels like a most satisfying kind of upset.

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