The answers just might be in those 67 pages. Unfortunately, so are all the difficulties.
MLB sent the union a “2020 Operations Manual” to cover the protocols designed to restart the game with health and safety. The 67 pages delivered Friday night are an exhaustive effort covering items as large as testing for COVID-19 and as small as the best practices for rosin bags and hitting donuts.
There are multiple diagrams meant to provide social-distancing recommendations for items, from sitting in the dugout to organizing pitchers’ fielding practice in spring training.
Even with all the detail, MLB considers this document a draft based on its medical advisors counsel that will be chiseled further with recommendations from teams and the union.
It’s also depressive.
Because any reader of the document will be reminded of just how many needles will have to be thread in how many places to not just restart the game, but keep it going for several months to resolution. Now add all the competing voices and agendas — not just in baseball, but government and medicine. Now add the money component. Now — most vitally — add a virus not bound by rules.
For those pointing to the Korean Baseball Organization currently playing and MLB adopting many of the same health/safety practices, yes, it is great that there was a forerunner. But that is a 10-team league with travel exclusively by bus. South Korea’s governmental action and citizenry buy-in were decisive and aggressive. So that country doesn’t even have 300 deaths from COVID-19, yet nevertheless a small surge in cases in the last week chilled the league if a need for revisions or even a shutdown might be necessary.
In the United States, deaths are near 90,000, the number dying every day continues to go up not down and states are all not reading from the same playbook.
It is into that forum that MLB is going to try to get the union to sign off on new health/safety protocols and restart the season. I hope they pull it off. I love the game, and my livelihood is built around it.
But every page of the document screams about the kind of cooperation, cohesion and competence that will be required to succeed. Adaptability will be at the forefront, especially for players, a breed raised on routine about to have pretty much all of their regimens disrupted or eliminated from hitting in indoor cages to spitting sunflower seeds to modified workout rooms to travel to … really, the 67 pages cover it all.
Which is why so much of this is going to come down to just how badly do we want to play major league baseball in 2020? Because MLB and the union will do their best to create the finest health/safety practices currently known. But that will merely mitigate risk, not remove it.
In a section titled “Conduct Outside of Club Facilities,” MLB states it will not restrict activities for the players and staff who will make up the inner sanctum of spring training and a season, but it warns about participating in non-baseball group activities, adding, “The careless actions of a single member of the team places the entire team [and their families] at risk.”
Now think about how many single members there are. There will be 1,500 players in 30 spring training sites. You can about double that number for support staff. Family. Anyone they mix with outside of the facility. Now move to the regular season. Add bus drivers and pilots and anyone necessary to clean rooms in hotels. The concentric circles keep going. and MLB’s plan covers it all in minute detail, but there are words, there are practices, and there is what the virus is going to do.
MLB’s plan discourages players/staff from leaving hotels on the road for anything but games, and to do otherwise necessitates permission from team personnel. Good luck with that oversight. Plus, it is probably easier for the average player to break a chewing tobacco habit than not go out after games day after day on the road. The discipline necessary will be dramatic. And a single person breaking the discipline chain “places the entire team [and their families] at risk.”
In the best scenario, MLB is hoping to begin spring training in mid-June. That means getting an agreement with the Players Association no later than the next two weeks. Because to implement all the spring health/safety protocols and to get the players there will probably take another two weeks. And in the next two weeks MLB and the union importantly have to agree on how to pay the players, a contentious issue that is making groups that need to be cooperative, not that.
But why argue about money until you know if you will play, and there is no play without agreeing on health and safety, and in the 67 pages that MLB sent, there are a lot of protocols on how to try to return the best way possible. It is thorough and thoughtful. It also is 67 pages that say as much between the lines as in the words.
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