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Is it possible for the Rockies to play baseball in 2020?

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The health and safety protocols are clear — and also raise questions

Yesterday, Major League Baseball’s 2020 Operations Manual became available. It’s the document that outlines health and safety protocols for the 2020 season that both MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to. The manual is over 100 pages long and (I thought) fairly interesting reading. (You can find my Twitter summary here.) While the document was too long to review in detail, I’d like to highlight some takeaways and raise questions about the viability of baseball during a pandemic.

The tier system

The plan is built around having three “tiers” of personnel. There are also caps on the number of personnel allowed to be categorized in a particular tier. So, for example, teams may have a maximum of two athletic trainers as Tier 1 personnel. This tiering system determines where personnel are allowed and the kinds of screenings they must undergo.

  • Tier 1 — These are “essential, on-field personnel” (e.g., players, coaches, physicians, and trainers). A team may have a maximum of 87 Tier 1 individuals. Also, umpires are Tier 1 personnel though they are not part of any team’s organization.
  • Tier 2 — These personnel (e.g., additional training staff, front office personnel, the head groundskeeper) do not play but work closely with Tier 1 individuals and need access to them. Tier 2 individuals have access to restricted areas but must wear a face covering at all times. No more than 38 individuals may have Tier 2 status.
  • Tier 3 — These personal are essential to the game but do not require close contact with Tier 1 individuals (e.g., cleaning service providers, broadcast personnel, transportation providers). Clubs may allow up to 150 Tier 3 individuals.

So Nolan Arenado is a Tier 1 Individual — he’s “essential, on-field personnel” — while Jeff Bridich is Tier 2 and Jenny Cavnar is Tier 3. It’s the scaffolding for the entire system.

A sampling of topics covered

The manual is detailed, outlining everything from temperature checks and COVID-19 screenings and quarantines to clubhouse and dugout spacing and safety protocols to travel procedures to rule changes for the 2020 season (e.g., designated hitter, extra-innings rules).

To give you a sense of how the manual works, here’s a passage on dugout protocols from 4.2.2, “Specific Guidelines for Certain Restricted Areas”:

To allow for enhanced physical distancing, only Tier 1 Individuals active for that day’s game and who are likely to enter the game (e.g., not the next game’s scheduled starting pitcher) should be in the dugout during a game. Inactive players may sit in auxiliary seating areas designated by the Club, including in the stands, provided they are spaced out to allow for at least six feet of personal space and have adequate shelter from weather, including sun, wind, and precipitation (with fans or other means of temperature control if practicable). The same restrictions on conduct (e.g., use of personal electronic devices) that apply to players in the dugout apply to players sitting in any auxiliary seating area.

Covered Individuals (including inactive players) who have no in-game or post-game responsibilities are permitted to leave the ballpark during the game, provided they communicate with Clubs in advance to coordinate feasible transportation options, particularly on the road.

Leaning on the dugout railing or ledges is discouraged, but permissible provided individuals use a clean towel as a barrier between themselves and the railing or ledge.

Make efforts to discourage and limit unnecessary movement within the dugout to adhere to physical distancing protocols, including by using signage or barriers.

Disinfect dugout phones with anti-viral wipes after each use.

Batting helmets must be individually cleaned and wrapped (e.g., in a plastic bag) before being placed in equipment bags.

The Operations Manual has that level of detail throughout. A rough summary might be something like this:

You will have your temperature taken a lot. Wear PPE and keep your hands and equipment clean. Practice social distancing. If it can be done outside, do it outside, and if it can be done online, that’s even better. And don’t share anything with anyone.

The protocols outlined struck me as being manageable. It would, for example, take some practice to stop leaning on the dugout railing, but it’s the kind of behavior that’s easily corrected with some practice.

A potential problem

But all of that was offset by this passage, which appears early in Section 2.6. “Conduct Outside of Club Facilities”:

In order for a 2020 season to be conducted safely, Covered Individuals must exercise care while away from Club facilities to avoid situations in which the risk of contracting the virus is elevated, such as participating in activities involving large groups or indoor activities in which people are in close proximity to one another (e.g., crowded restaurants, bars, clubs). MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from Club facilities, but will expect the Covered Individuals on each Club to ensure that they all act responsibly. [Emphasis added.] The careless actions of a single individual places the entire team (and their families) at risk, and the Covered Individuals on each Club should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to others. All written codes of conduct will be provided to the Joint Committee and should include specific rules regarding what conduct is and is not allowed while the Club is on the road. MLB will not be involved in the crafting or enforcement of any of these team-specific codes of conduct.

This passage undercuts the integrity of the entire plan, which is detailed to the point that it provides instructions on how players should behave when using airplane lavatories, which, incidentally, is discouraged (see Section 7.1.4, “Air Travel”). So, just to be clear, this document provides a detailed system of monitoring, and then MLB just trusts Covered Individuals to use the honor system when they are away from team facilities. That seems problematic.

Added to that, there are no provisions (at least in the manual) that cover non-baseball staff at, say, hotels where teams stay. What steps are being taken to protect them?

Who knows? Maybe the plan works. Perhaps there is enough at stake for everyone that personnel can be sufficiently isolated, and everyone will make good choices. I hope so. But success will require 100% buy-in from everyone involved.

Of course, this comes after we’ve learned that three RockiesCharlie Blackmon, Phillip Diehl, and Ryan Castellani — have tested positive for COVID-19 after training in Rockies facilities.

And last night, Sam Weatherly, who signed with the Rockies yesterday, dropped this on his Instagram:

It’s a great pic of some excited players at Coors Field. It’s also in violation of the 2020 Operations Manual.