A Utah labratory’s promise that it could quickly turn around COVID-19 test results was a key cog in Major League Baseball’s plan to take the field this season. As the gears started turning July 1, when players began reporting for “spring training,” it became apparent that particular component may be faulty.
Numerous teams, including the 2019 World Series participants Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, had to push back the start of full-team workouts from Sunday until late Monday or Tuesday because that’s when they finally received results of tests administered Friday. That lapse of about 72 hours stands in stark contrast to the 24-hour turnaround commissioner Rob Manfred said the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in South Jordan promised the league.
Teams whose results were delayed reacted with outrage. In an extremely shortened, three-week preseason — games are scheduled to begin July 23 — every day lost carries extra weight and potential competitive consequences.
“Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp,” Mike Rizzo, the Nationals general manager, said in a statement Monday. “Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”
MLB blamed the lag on “unforeseen delays” caused by the July 4th weekend in a statement it issued Monday evening. It then praised the speediness and accuracy of SMARTL’s testing.
“The Utah lab is conducting a level of analysis and turnaround that is unprecedented in COVID testing, including providing an extra layer of confirmation for all positive test results to rule out false positive concerns,” the statement said. “The laboratory is operating on a seven-day-a-week schedule from July 5th through the end of the World Series.”
At the same time, however, the league is reportedly looking into contracting with a second lab. In a MLB Players Association memo to the players that was first reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal on Monday, the union said it and the league are “actively pursuing an additional medical lab site to increase the speed and efficiency of test processing and reporting.”
The lab processed more than 3,500 samples representing all 30 clubs between June 27-July 3, according to MLB’s statement on Monday.
While much of the blame for the rocky start may have been foisted onto SMRTL, though, it may actually be more appropriate to pin it on the test administrators.
Take the case of the Oakland A’s for example. They finally got their results from Friday’s mandatory intake screening tests late Monday afternoon. That meant they didn’t have their first full-squad workout until Monday evening — the same time the New York Yankees, who already had four full days of practice, were playing an intrasquad scrimmage.
The Utah lab didn’t have a hand in the delay, though. Instead, it appeared that the test administration company, Comprehensive Drug Testing out of Santa Ana, Calif., didn’t send out the tests until late Sunday night. They were scheduled to arrive in Utah at 1:30 a.m., according to a WhatsApp message acquired by The Athletic that A’s general manager David Forst sent to the team. SMRTL then turned the results around in less than 24 hours, allowing the team to practice that night.
“On top of screwing up the logistics of this whole thing, neither MLB nor CDT communicated any of this to us until we pressed them for information,” Forst wrote, “at which point all they could do was apologize, which frankly doesn’t really do much for us.
In addition, test administrators failed to show up to test the Angels and the Yankees on Sunday. It was supposed to be the first day of the league’s every-two-days testing schedule that will last the rest of the season. Both teams took saliva samples from players and staff to be used in testing and practiced as scheduled. One Yankees source told Rosenthal the team proceeded because it believes the players face as much or more risk outside the practice facility as within it.
The St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants have also had to miss practice days because of a lag in the reporting of test results.
The bumpy start has fostered further misgivings among players and fans who entered the process skeptical of the MLB’s ability to keep team personnel safe during the pandemic.
Count Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle among them. He told reporters Sunday he was “on the fence” about playing this season and that the trickle of test results hasn’t helped.
“We’ve got to clean that up,” Doolittle said, according to the Washington Post. “As the season moves forward, as we continue spring training, especially once we start traveling, those results have got to be back.”
Instead of using the bubble model employed by the NBA and Major League Soccer, MLB teams will use their home stadiums, although fans will not be allowed. The regular season is scheduled to last through Sept. 27.