Major League Baseball is back. Probably. The COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing threat -- MLB teams have reported new positive tests each of the last few days -- and could shut the 2020 season down at any point. In an effort to play the season safely, MLB and the MLBPA developed what is called the 2020 Operations Manual, a 101-page document detailing the league's health and safety protocols. The first draft was 67 pages.
"Although no set of protocols is sufficient to completely eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, in developing this plan, the parties relied on numerous MLB and Club medical staff and outside experts specializing in infectious diseases in order to minimize the risk present in Baseball environments to the greatest extent possible," the Operations Manual reads. "We also reviewed the reopening plans from sports leagues around the world in order to develop the best possible approach. As comprehensive as this manual is, it does not address every aspect of MLB and Club operations for the 2020 season. Additional guidance may be provided throughout the season."
The Operations Manual is "based on a series of interlocking safeguards from the community to the ballpark to maintain the health and safety of all personnel," and the protocols apply to "Covered Individuals." Covered Individuals are players, other on-field personnel (managers, coaches, umpires), and a "limited number" of staffers who come into close contact with players (clubhouse attendants, etc.).
MLB has commissioned The Sports Medicine and Research Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City to handle all COVID-19 tests. The facility handles the league's performance-enhancing drug tests and will dedicate a portion of its lab to COVID-19 while "ensuring that resources will not be diverted from other laboratories that are already performing COVID-19 testing for the public."
The Operations Manual is comprehensive and ridiculously detailed, yet it still feels like it might be somewhat inadequate. I guess that's the nature of trying to play professional sports in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. Here's what you need to know about the new safety measures MLB and the MLB Players Association will implement this season.
Testing, testing, testing
Before spring training workouts begin, all Covered Individuals must complete a symptom and exposure questionnaire (what did you do during the shutdown, basically), and be tested for COVID-19 as well as antibodies. Personnel can report to spring training and begin workouts only after testing negative.
Covered Individuals will be monitored throughout spring training, the regular season, and postseason. They will undergo multiple daily temperature checks, and anyone who registers a 100.4-degree temperature or higher will be sent home (or told to stay home) and quarantined until they can be tested. Players and coaches will be tested for COVID-19 every other day. All other Covered Individuals will be tested multiple times per week. Everyone will undergo antibody testing approximately once a month.
The 30 MLB teams are required to have a dedicated testing area at their ballpark as well as a dedicated isolation area as far as possible from the stadium's main baseball facilities. The isolation area will be used for any Covered Individual who "develops symptoms or learns of a positive test result for COVID-19 (so they) can isolate temporarily pending relocation to his or her home or a medical facility outside the Club facility."
MLB will also provide COVID-19 testing for anyone who lives with a Covered Individual, and, as a public service, the league will also provide testing for healthcare workers and other first responders in each team's home city.
What happens when someone tests positive?
Let's be real. It's not "if" someone tests positive, it's "when." Charlie Blackmon . . The Angels and Blue Jays have confirmed COVID-19 cases. It's foolish to pretend there will be zero positive tests once training resumes. It'll happen and MLB is prepared for it, sort of.
The Operations Manual calls for the 30 individual teams to "establish a specific COVID-19 Action Plan" in consultation with its medical staff and local health officials. MLB is leaving it up to each team to develop a plan. Here's more on the COVID-19 Action Plan requirements:
The Plan must contain, among other things, specific procedures for isolating, transporting, testing, and treating any Covered Individuals who display potential symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19. The Plan must include: (i) procedures for handling such occurrences at each of the Club's facilities and while on the road (including the means for a Covered Individual's return to the Club's home city or his or her personal residence); (ii) identification of one or more local housing options (e.g., hotel or apartment) for any Covered Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 while in the Club's home city or the Club's Spring Training city, or who reside with an individual who tests positive (which housing options shall be arranged by the Club or reimbursed by the Club to the affected Player); (iii) procedures for treating emergent non-COVID-19 health incidents (including specific guidance on appropriate PPE use by staff when addressing such emergencies); (iv) contact information for local health officials responsible for the jurisdiction; and (v) protocols for reporting notice of any symptomatic individuals to the Joint Committee.
Covered Individuals who exhibit symptoms will be isolated and given an expedited COVID-19 test. The team is also responsible for contact tracing, so any other Covered Individuals or team personnel who came into close contact with the symptomatic individual will be tested as well. Also, any team facilities that were occupied by the symptomatic person must be disinfected.
Anyone who tests positive will be isolated away from the team and remain in daily contact with the team, and undergo follow up testing as necessary. "As part of its COVID-19 Action Plan, the Club also must identify and inform the Joint Committee of one or more local health care facilities to which it will refer any Covered Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 for treatment if the circumstances warrant," the Operations Manual says.
MLB created a new COVID-19 Related Injured List to help navigate the pandemic this season. There is no minimum or maximum stay, and for a player to be eligible to return, he must test negative twice at least 24 hours apart, show no symptoms for 72 hours, and receive approval from team doctors.
What about high-risk individuals?
High-risk individuals are those with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer called chronic myeloid leukemia last year. Kenley Jansen has had two heart surgeries in recent years. Adam Duvall, Scott Alexander, and Brandon Morrow are Type 1 diabetics. They're high-risk individuals and the sheer numbers tell us there are other baseball players who are high-risk individuals as well.
The Operations Manual says it is up to each team to identify Covered Individuals (as well as those who live with Covered Individuals) who are high-risk "by virtue of their age and/or medical history." High-risk Covered Individuals who choose to play (or work) will have access to special accommodations such as separate entrances, separate changing areas, limited time at the ballpark, and enhanced personal protective equipment, among other things.
High-risk players may opt out of the season at any point -- if they begin the season but later change their mind because they feel unsafe, they can do that and opt out -- and still receive full salary and service time. Players who opt out because they live with a high-risk person are not entitled to full salary and service time, though the Operations Manual allows teams to be accommodating. Essentially, the team could still pay a player who decides to stay home because he has a high-risk family member.
Away from the park? It's the honor system
I am no infectious disease expert, but this strikes me as the single biggest vulnerability in MLB's return-to-play plan. The Operations Manual sets no rules or guidelines for Covered Individuals away from the ballpark. Instead, it relies on them making responsible decisions. From Section 2.6 of the Operations Manual:
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. 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.
The Orlando Pride of the National Women's Soccer League recently withdrew from an upcoming tournament because six players and four staffers tested positive for COVID-19. That reportedly came after several members of the team went out to a bar. You don't have to try real hard to see something similar happening in baseball.
MLB players are night owls. They leave the ballpark around midnight following the typical night game, maybe later, then they go out to dinner or maybe out on the town. That's if they're not traveling. When they travel, they might not get into the next city until 5 a.m., and only then do they actually get some sleep. Players sleep all day and are up all night, generally speaking.
Players are going to want to go out to dinner, go see their significant others, go visit family. It's unavoidable. MLB is not setting a code of conduct, however, and will instead require players to sit through an educational program that covers safe behavior, and trust them to do the right thing. That's a pretty big leap of faith. I don't know what the alternative is -- expecting players to be robots who only go to the park and home is unrealistic -- but clearly, this is a major vulnerability.
Ballpark and on-field measures
As expected, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to sweeping changes to make the ballpark safer for all Covered Individuals. Pitchers will have their own personal rosin bag, for example. They will also have their own personal batch of baseballs for bullpen sessions, and, because finger-licking is prohibited, they may keep a wet rag in their pocket. For real.
Here are some other measures being taken to make the ballpark safer in the COVID-19 era:
- No bat/ball boys or girls. Their duties will be handled by team personnel.
- Hitters will have their own personal pine tar rag, bat weight, and other hitting equipment. Nothing is shared.
- Players have to retrieve their own cap and glove at the end of an inning if they're on base. A teammate can't bring it to them.
- Baseballs used during batting practice must be disinfected and taken out of circulation for at least five days.
- No spitting and no chewing tobacco. Chewing gum is allowed.
- High fives, fist bumps, and hugs are prohibited. Fighting will be met with "severe discipline."
- The only contact allowed on the field is tags plays and other incidental contact that occurs during normal play.
- Non-playing personnel must wear masks in the dugout.
- Showering at the ballpark is "discouraged." Even then only players, coaches, and clubhouse staff can shower at the park.
Furthermore, players on opposing teams shall not fraternize prior to the game and must stay at least six feet apart. We've all seen players stop to chat with their buddies in the outfield during pregame warmups. That is not allowed this year.
Some of those rules will be difficult to follow -- pitchers lick their fingers and players spit constantly, they probably don't even realize they're doing it half the time, and those are tough habits to break -- but they will help keep everyone safe. People will slip up, it's inevitable, but keeping those slip-ups to a minimum very well may determine whether the 2020 season is completed.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous and unprecedented impact on our daily lives, our families and our communities," the Operations Manual reads. "This is a challenging time, but we will meet the challenge by continuing to work together. Adherence to the health and safety protocols described in this manual will increase our likelihood of being successful. We hope that resuming Baseball will, in its own small way, return a sense of normalcy and aid in recovery."