MLB Plan to Return

The immensity of MLB's plan to return through a daunting health-and-safety protocol

MLB Plan to Return. What’s most striking about Major League Baseball’s 67-page health-and-safety protocol outlining an attempt to return amid the coronavirus pandemic isn’t its little, snicker-worthy details — that players won’t be able to take Ubers and can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder for the national anthem and, gulp will be discouraged from postgame showers. It isn’t the granularity of the plan, all the way down to the color-coded diagrams showing exactly where personnel should stand and sit in the dugout.

It’s the immensity of it all, the right-there-on-paper, brass-tacks accounting of what it looks like to bring back a professional sport in the middle of a global pandemic. It is a logistical clamber, a moonshot requiring the buy-in of parties with multivariate endgames. Over the next four weeks, or six weeks, or however long MLB and the MLB Players Association remain committed to making a 2020 season happen, they will be forced to reckon with the same reality upending the rest of the world: that change, no matter how colossal — and uncomfortable — is necessary.

And make no mistake: The change in this proposal is, like its word count and ambition, Brobdingnagian. This is baseball like we’ve never seen. This, or some bargained evolution of it, is what it takes to have a chance at garnering the support of the broad coalition necessary for any sport to return: the backing of federal, state and local governments; the rubber stamp of local health officials; the buy-in of fans; and the collaboration of players.

Those players will get their say first after receiving the memo, which was obtained by ESPN, on Friday night. They will dive into its minutiae, consider its offerings, and determine its palatability. They will do what all of us do now every day: measure what once was and what undeniably is.

The scale that weighs practical and achievable, realistic and optimistic, is hopelessly out of balance, complicating further what’s already a mind-bending matter. For baseball to come back as COVID-19 scrambles the world will take a cocktail of risk, cunning, and hubris that, when compounded, could be Molotov.

It’s not impossible, not by any means. It’s not, as the protocol illustrates, going to be easy, either.

Here is what a day in the life of a baseball player could look like in 2020.

Wake up. Grab the thermometer issued to every player in MLB and take your temperature. Just make sure to do it before eating, drinking, or exercising. Then take it again. If it’s over 100 degrees, self-isolate, call the team physician, and get ready to take a rapid-response COVID-19 test.

If not, you can go to the stadium. If you’re on the road, it can be on any of the six bus trips to the ballpark instead of the typical early-or-late options. Don’t forget to open the windows. If you’re at home, go to the entrance that can be used only by 101 specifically designated people. Put on a mask. Walk into the stadium. Maybe even in uniform already. Get your temperature taken again. If it’s still below 100, you’re allowed in the restricted areas: the field, the training room, the weight room, the clubhouse. Or perhaps the auxiliary clubhouse, because social distancing is important, and six feet will separate lockers, and locker rooms just aren’t big enough to handle that many people and that much space between them, so the team needs to build another.

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Might be your day for a coronavirus test, since there will be a few a week, so get that saliva ready. Also could be the monthly blood test for coronavirus antibodies. Since you can’t use hot tubs, cold tubs, saunas, steam rooms, or cryotherapy, there’s no excuse not to get to the 4:30 hitters’ meeting on time. Just check whether it’s on the iPad or outside. Indoor, in-person meetings don’t exist anymore.

At least you can take off the mask on the field. You’ll be out there plenty. It may look a little odd. No water or sports-drink jugs in the dugout. No sunflower seeds or dip. Remember? You can’t spit. Or high-five. Or dap. Or hug.

It’s game time. There’s no lineup-card exchange. They were sent via the app. The manager is standing along the railing. He’s not allowed to be on the steps. Other coaches are spread out — six feet from one another, of course. The rest of the bench is sparsely populated. Only players likely to enter the game can be in the dugout. The rest are in the stands. The closest you can sit to anyone is with four empty seats between you and two empty rows behind you.

When the pitcher needs some grip, he’d better not lick his fingers. He has a personal rosin bag for that. The hitter who needs some tack has his own pine tar rag, too. When a hitter whacks a single to left field and gets on first base, he should skip the small talk. Socializing and fraternizing are forbidden before, during, and after the game. Same with fighting. So don’t be too nice to opponents, but don’t be too mean, either.

Oh, and that ball that went into left. Get rid of it. If it’s in play and touched by multiple players, it’s no longer good. Because cleanliness is paramount. If you’re playing, you’re supposed to wash your hands or sanitize them every half-inning. Does bullpen phone get used? Disinfect it. Dugout phone rings? Disinfect it.

The game ends. There’s no buffet, so the clubhouse attendant grabs you a pre-packaged meal. Don’t bother with a cash tip. They take Venmo and PayPal, thanks. Want to eat with teammates? Social-distancing rules still apply. You could wait until you get back to the hotel and hit the private dining area or order room service. Don’t even think of going out to dinner. You’re not allowed to leave the hotel without approval — period. So go back to your room, which looks the same as it did when you left — housekeeping isn’t allowed to enter — and call it a day.

Every edict in the last eight paragraphs is explicitly detailed in MLB’s protocol document. It essentially rewrites the laws of baseball to exist during the coronavirus. Nothing in the memo is entirely unacceptable — fine, the no-shower thing is pretty gross — and nobody ever will mistake playing baseball for working in a grocery store or on the front lines of containment efforts or stepping into a nursing home.

That didn’t lessen the visceral reaction the document prompted Saturday. The week had been defined by a fight about money. The owners say they will lose it if they play games at home stadiums in front of no fans, and the players say they want the prorated salaries they believe a late-March agreement guarantees them, and figuring out how to split up billions of dollars was supposed to be the difficult part.

After looking at bullet points from the document, one player asked, “Are we really going to be in spring training on June 10?” Which was a fair question because a little more than three weeks separate baseball from that day, and team officials themselves were skeptical about their ability to execute the plans between now and then.

At the same time, the parties begrudgingly admitted that a document of such thoroughness is crucial to the game’s return. It is, above all, a nod to public-health officials, who do not have the same incentive as politicians to reopen baseball. Their lone charge is to keep citizens safe, and if baseball’s return endangers that — or merely threatens to — it is far easier to say no and never know whether it would than say yes and learn the hard way that it did.

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The details, then, matter, and they are accordingly pedantic. Employees are split into three groups. Tier 1 comprises on-field personnel: up to 50 players, a manager, eight coaches, two bullpen catchers, two athletic trainers, two physicians, and one strength and conditioning coach. The team can designate as many as 35 people in Tier 2, a grab bag of baseball operations sorts deemed essential. These 101 people are the only ones in every organization allowed to travel. That’s upward of 3,000 people being tested a week at SMRTL, a Utah drug-testing lab that baseball paid to be converted into a COVID-testing facility. Among those individuals and their family members, SMRTL may process 10,000 tests a week and another untold number for local healthcare workers in each of MLB’s 26 metropolitan areas, whom the league pledged to test for free in its protocol.

Testing would start before spring training with an intake screening. At any point in the season, a positive test would prompt a quarantine of at least seven days — a period with which commissioner Rob Manfred declared himself comfortable to CNN but is half the length of the typically accepted 14 days. The team and local health officials would start contact-tracing efforts and rapid-test those who had been near the infected person. To return, a player would require two negative coronavirus tests, zero symptoms, and the consent of team medical personnel.

Plans of action make up most of the protocol. There is one on how to handle symptomatic individuals and another outlining the Emergency Action Plan each team must submit in case a COVID-positive individual shows up to a stadium. There are specifics on testing family members and endeavoring to protect any so-called high-risk individuals, whose age and medical history leave them more susceptible to COVID complications. There are details of Draconian measures for isolating road teams.

“MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from work,” the protocol said, “but will expect the members of each team to ensure that they all act responsibly. The careless actions of a single member of the team place the entire team [and their families] at risk, and teams should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to the team.”

In other words, don’t go to a crowded bar. Or act nonchalant about personal hygiene. Be responsible, disciplined — as safe as safe can get when you’re taking flights and gathering large groups of people and engaging in behavior that, compared to the homebound existence most players are living today, brings an element of risk.

The teams, the document says without saying, will hold up their ends of the bargain. Can the players?

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For much of Saturday, the rhetoric among the MLBPA rank-and-file registered as a mélange of intrigue, confusion, and realism. Players who had communicated with some of the highest-ranking player officials at the union came into the weekend expecting the sorts of rules MLB suggested but still reeled at reading them in print and hearing them spoken aloud.

The shower decree fired up a number of players. Its language — “Showering in Club facilities should be discouraged” — certainly could be softened as the MLBPA and team executives begin to give feedback to the league in the coming days. And one leader, in a conversation with ESPN, made reference to the 2016 labor deal in which some players believe the union prioritized creature comforts, including extra seating on spring-training buses, over economics: “I really hope no showers doesn’t become the new second seat on the bus.”

There are countless ways for the 2020 season to go sideways, and while the players arguing in favor of personal hygiene does not seem to be one of them, the coming week could bring essential discussion about the protocol and the answers it’s missing.

Like, what happens if a player tests positive on the road? The protocol leaves it up to teams and their Emergency Action Plans, but as one general manager said Saturday: “Do I put him on a plane? Do I drive to get him myself? I’d rather have a detailed answer for that question than some of the things [MLB] focused on.”

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Or: Can teams really overhaul their stadiums by adding extra rooms for overflow personnel within weeks?

And: The protocol grants high-risk individuals the option to not play or work this season. What about non-high-risk personnel? Does their exclusion in the document mean the league would consider them obligated to play — or at least to play if they want to get paid?

Plus: Just because some personnel deemed Tier 3 — cleaning crews, groundskeepers — don’t come into contact with players, does that preclude them from undergoing testing similar to Tiers 1 and 2? Because as the protocol stands, they would not undergo the same level of testing.

Quite popular among the players was: Will MLB really enforce this? It’s a question with deeper implications. Clearly the league did not mail in the protocol. Though its thoroughness gave some a feeling of sophistry, the document laid out a relatively elaborate plan. If a player fist-bumps a teammate, will he be fined? Further, while the protocol says, “MLB will strictly enforce compliance” using “monitoring,” “audits” and “monthly certification,” it does not list penalties for teams running afoul of the rules.

It gets back to that tenuous balance among practical and achievable, realistic, and optimistic. What’s reasonable? What’s right? How much leeway is there actually? Is any leeway too much?

If all of this serves as a shock to the system of these negotiations, that may not be the worst thing. The ugliness of the first week is done, and by now the league and players should recognize that a season dies without action. As much as the protocol resembles baseball dystopia — the diagrams illustrating where to position oneself in the dugout and stands brought a dose of this-really-is-real to the proceedings — the sides ultimately are aligned on the broad strokes of health and safety.

No one on either side wants a baseball player or coach or manager to test positive for COVID-19. But it’s almost certainly going to happen, and when it does, there needs to be confidence in the system. There’s plenty of words devoted to the three phases of spring training and how baseball is going to start. There is no one about what happens in the event of a COVID outbreak inside of a clubhouse and how MLB will handle it.

What the protocol offers, as much as anything, is a simulacrum of America. Across the country, as reopenings start and stop and stall, public officials are walking this very same tightrope, where language, intent, and policy attempt to intersect in a harmonious fashion. The skepticism inside the game about MLB’s plan is scarcely different than those who have turned a pandemic into a referendum.

It’s not quite as binary in baseball, though. Were it a simple choice — my side vs. your side — there would never be labor peace. But both also have a future together to consider — a future that looks markedly worse without baseball in 2020. Which makes the protocol, for whatever flaws and foibles it may have, a consequential document.

Because if there is baseball this year — if the money is a blip and the protocol a step forward and the showers a-flowing’ — those who made it happen will have earned it.

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