Jesse Dougherty, The Washington Post: June 24, 2020
Major League Baseball’s 2020 operations manual, the guiding document for playing during the novel coronavirus pandemic, covers a lot of ground in a lot of detail.
Players can lean on padded railings at the ballpark if there is a towel between their body and the surface. Large condiment bottles must be “removed from eating areas and replaced with individually packaged units.” The final 10 pages, out of 101 total, are filled with diagrams that show how to best socially distance during drills and group stretching. One is dedicated to using two cut off men from the outfield while staying six feet from the nearest teammate.
But “Conduct Outside of Club Facilities,” covered in one paragraph of section 2.6, feels vague and potentially problematic, according to multiple public health experts who reviewed the manual. It urges players, coaches and other team personnel to “exercise care” while away from the ballpark, then leaves each individual club to form an off-field code “to ensure they all act responsibly.”
“It’s basically an honor system and you’re trusting that a whole lot of people understand how serious this is, and will be careful and safe,” said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “This is a real gamble.”
Section 2.6 states that players, coaches and team personnel must “avoid situations in which high risk of contracting the virus is elevated.” That includes “large groups or indoor activities in which people are in close proximity to another.” And beyond the players, coaches and team personnel, the suggestion extends to their families, anyone living with them, and other friends or acquaintances they may see on a day-to-day basis. It means the viability of a season, and the safety of all participating, hinges on complete buy-in from at least a couple thousand people.
This, experts say, is an incredibly risky model for a 60-game season that was agreed upon by the league and players’ union Tuesday. The NBA, by contrast, has plans to stage the rest of its season in a bubblelike environment at Disney World in Florida, in which players and staff cannot enter or reenter without quarantining. The NHL plans to designate two “hub” cities, have 12 teams in each, and could follow the NBA’s lead in implementing strict quarantine rules.
Baseball has a much looser plan, which includes air travel between cities, and does not have specific rules once players, coaches and staff leave team facilities. Among earlier models MLB explored for its return was a bubble centered around Phoenix and another using hubs in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Yet players expressed reluctance to remain sequestered from their families for months at a time, and the intense summer heat in those states also made the plan impractical.
Two people familiar with the dialogue surrounding the manual said there was never a discussion about placing more formal restrictions on players’ movements away from the field. But the expectation, according to those people, was that recommendations and guidelines would be reinforced constantly within each organization and players would police each other. Some outside of the sport are already skeptical.
“This is a very difficult plan,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research and a Washington Nationals season ticket holder. “I mean it could succeed, but it would be very difficult for this plan to succeed for all the teams.
“And I guess the question is if it doesn’t, and you have some teams that have to stop playing because of their numbers of infected players and personnel, then what happens to your baseball season? People are going to get sick. It then becomes a matter of how many.”
Experts explained that, even if everyone in and surrounding baseball was extremely careful, there are many complicating factors: Florida, Arizona and Texas create a disproportionate risks given case trends and relaxed state regulations. The structure of the shortened schedule means that it is likely that most, if not all, of the league’s 30 teams will visit one of those places this summer. Then there are the five teams — the Rays, Marlins, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks — that plan to regularly train and play either in or near hot spots.
When at the facility, or when traveling with the team, players have strict rules to follow. During road trips, they cannot leave the hotel for meals. They must arrive at the ballpark in specific time windows. They cannot chew tobacco or spit — two treasured habits — and on-site showers will be very limited.
It’s the rest of the time — mornings, late nights, off days — that puts the onus on players, coaches, staff and their families to exercise extreme caution. Zuckerman suggested potential penalties for “reckless behavior,” such as docked pay, to further incentivize safety and caution. Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, feels it is prudent for MLB to trust players, coaches and staff unless it is proven that it can’t. She says there is “public in public health,” meaning those playing and coaching should have agency in a model designed for their well-being.
“If they can’t trust the players, there are probably larger issues there,” Nuzzo said. “So I think you start with a position of trust and make sure they understand what the benefits are.”
When the operations manual trickled out Tuesday night, so did another report: Three Colorado Rockies players tested positive for coronavirus after a workout at Coors Field in Denver. On Wednesday, Sportsnet reported that several Blue Jays players and staff members have tested positive. Expectations are clashing with reality, even before the return begins.
Dave Sheinin and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.
Read the full report here.