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Philadelphia Phillies Covid-19 Outbreak An Ominous Sign For The Minors As Cases Surge

Phillies Complex Cliffwelch
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is hoped that on Friday, Aug. 13, the Florida Complex League Phillies will return to action for the first time since July 27.

A coronavirus outbreak has wiped out 13 of the team’s past 14 games. But no player on the FCL Phillies roster has tested positive since July 30.  The team has been practicing and working out for the past week and a half , and part of the reason for the layoff was because the team needed to stretch pitchers back out after the layoff.

The return of the FCL Phillies comes a couple of days after the FCL Pirates Black team canceled games because of Covid tests. The Pirates were supposed to return to action on Thursday, Aug. 12, but that game was rained out.

Both teams returning to the field is a positive sign, as the minors work to get to the end of the season without further significant outbreaks.

For the better part of three months, minor league baseball felt like it was on its honeymoon.

Games returned. Fans did, too, as cities eliminated capacity restrictions to coincide with more readily-available vaccines. Things didn’t feel normal, but what truly has? We had enough -- baseball, prospects, socially distanced game day promotions, the steady drumbeat of a nightly schedule -- to satisfy fans and help minor league franchises begin to dig out of the wretched hole 2020 left behind.

Lately, though, certain areas of the country are dealing with outbreaks of the highly contagious and rapidly spreading coronavirus Delta variant. Minor league teams playing in those areas have been impacted, too.

Tuesday night’s (Aug. 10) Double-A game between Northwest Arkansas and Frisco was postponed due to contract tracing within members of the Rangers organization, according to a statement released by the Naturals.

“We are adhering to Minor League Baseball’s health and safety protocols and will practice caution as we follow the guidance of experts,” the team said.

Frisco and Northwest Arkansas did return to action on Wednesday with a doubleheader.

That game is the most recent example of Covid-19 postponing scheduled games. But it’s not the most prominent.

The virus has wreaked havoc throughout the Philadelphia Phillies organization for the better part of two months, ranging from positive tests at the big league level in both June and July to an outbreak late last month at their Clearwater complex that left both Low-A Clearwater and adjacent Florida Complex League team out of action.

Clearwater canceled an entire three-game series against Fort Myers due to positive tests and contact tracing from July 29-Aug. 1, then postponed two more games against Bradenton on Aug. 3-4 because of the virus. The Threshers’ injured list has swelled to 32 players currently on either the 7- or 60-day injured list.

The Phillies are grappling with a crisis while coronavirus cases across the country -- particularly in Florida -- are surging due to the rapid spread of the Covid-19’s Delta variant.

As of Tuesday, the country’s rolling seven-day average of positive coronavirus cases was nearly 124,470, according to the New York Times, more than double its seven-day average from a year ago (53,834) and up by roughly 35 percent compared to just a week ago.

Florida has become the epicenter for the latest surge, reporting nearly 24,000 cases last Friday, its highest single-day number since the beginning of the pandemic. Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services reported hospitals have reached more than 80% of their occupancy limit, with nearly 25% of those patients Covid-19 related.

Florida isn’t alone. Several states in the Southeast and Midwest are seeing positive cases and hospitalizations -- especially among unvaccinated Americans -- on the rise, including in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Such a rise creates a myriad of issues for the day-to-day operations of minor league franchises. Chief among them? How to keep players, staff and fans safe and coronavirus free when the infection rates in those communities are growing.

Gate revenue isn’t a concern at the Complex League level, but teams were informed on Aug. 3 that all covered individuals at Arizona and Florida complexes were required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

But full-season affiliates desperately need fans in the seats. Simply put: The economics of minor league baseball for virtually every team do not work without fans in attendance, and even the most fortunate of franchises following the 2020 shutdown find themselves in dire need of a robust conclusion to the 2021 campaign.

The full-season minors have managed to get through four months of the season without significant coronavirus-related shutdowns. Now they have to figure out how to do so for another month.

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