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Safety, not money, the biggest obstacle for holding MLB games in 2020

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Colorado Rockies news and links for Sunday, May 17, 2020

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Last week began with word that MLB had a proposal to restart the league in July that was waiting to be approved by the owners and submitted to the Players Association for review. Money was the first thing that talked (as it often is) but when the two sides came together to talk turkey, health and safety protocols were the first items up for discussion.

And while more information has come out regarding the owner’s version of the financials (we’ll dig into this more in the next couple of days), what has come to the fore in the past couple of days is a portrait of what the game would look like were games to commence this summer while the spectre of the coronavirus hangs over the nation. There’s no reason to argue about money if player health and safety cannot be assured, as evidenced by so many players speaking out over such concerns over the last few days.

Exclusive: MLB proposes medical and safety protocols to players in 67-page document | The Athletic ($)

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic were the first to obtain a copy of the operations manual for the abbreviated season with health and safety protocols, which has since been obtained by the Associated Press (give the Denver Post a click here) as well as Jeff Passan (no paywall for ESPN here). The Athletic’s report contains the most details, which is why it’s linked above.

And the details are extensive. Take this part of the proposal about how baseballs will be handled, as reported by Passan:

A ball will be thrown away after it is touched by multiple players, and throwing the ball around the infield will be discouraged. Pitchers would have their own set of balls to throw during bullpen sessions, and personnel who rub baseballs with mud for the umpires must use gloves.

Certain details are grabbing headlines—like no spitting (seeds or tobacco), no mascots, and players asked to shower and even dress before coming to the game, just like you did in t-ball.

Testing is a big subject, as the need to execute thousands of tests of week is considered vital to opening up the league. Individuals would be broken into safety tiers: tier 1 (on-field and medical personnel), tier 2 (“essential” employees and front office staff), and tier 3 (other individuals required to make the games happen, like cleaners, cooks, travel personnel, etc). Those in the first two tiers would receive multiple COVID tests per week, mostly run by a lab in Salt Lake City that handles MLB performance enhancing drug testing in order to adequately scale up the testing need without taking away from public health needs (part of scaling up testing includes providing more tests for health care workers in MLB cities).

Temperatures would be taken multiple times a day, with players who experience rising temperatures or other symptoms receiving a rapid test and forced to self isolate. Those who had close contact with the individual will then be monitored.

Lots of work would go into minimizing spread, including restrictions on where players sit in the dugouts, how far apart lockers are placed, and even where hotel rooms should be on the road (first floor, to avoid elevator use). Public transport on the road is out, and teams will need to fly into smaller airports whenever possible. Oh, and those who travel with the team will need to essentially self-isolate while on the road, which I’m sure will be super easy and barely an inconvenience for anybody.

This is, of course, essentially a first draft. The league sent the manual to teams, who have until May 22 to offer feedback on what the commissioner’s office is calling a minimum standard. The league should be commended for the level of thoughtfulness and detail that went into the manual. There will be holes, but that’s why they’re soliciting feedback from the teams. One can debate how to respond to the outbreak, but at least they are taking the whole thing seriously. The level of detail demonstrates that.

But there’s a darker undercurrent to those details because there are still a lot of gaps in how teams are to execute these details. There’s also a question about what it’s going to take to get buy-in from everyone involved to make sure these health and safety guidelines are followed.

But most of all it speaks to just how many needles have to be threaded just right in order to make baseball happen in 2020.

Will your MLB team play at home? A team-by-team look at likelihood as league navigates COVID-19 | USA Today

Of course, none of this addresses the ever changing local situations. The manual does include directives about coordinating with local health officials, but some teams may have to relocate from their locale. The report is more about how the 18 states and 26 cities are handling the loosening of stay-at-home orders, but little on how those restrictions would affect, say, the Rockies specifically. Certain teams, like the Blue Jays, might not be able to play in their home stadium at all, while others, such as California teams, may have to re-locate initially before being allowed back home.

It’s just one more hurdle that must be overcome before money is even discussed. The situation is, obviously, complex and unprecedented. If baseball doesn’t happen because of money concerns, that would aggravate this fan. But there’s a chance that everything that needs to be done to keep players and personnel (and their families!) safe might turn out to be too big of a hurdle to leap, leaving the problem of money undiscussed entirely. (As Joel Sherman put it, “why argue about money until you know if you will play?”).

Players, owners, and local government officials may decide that everything that must be done to hold games safely either isn’t enough to sufficiently mitigate the risk of perpetuating outbreaks (it cannot be eliminated) or isn’t worth everything that needs to go into it. And if that were to be the reason we miss out on baseball in 2020, rather than be angry that the players and owners weren’t able to figure out how to split the money, I would just be sad.