Every day there seems to be new chatter about the ongoing negotiations to start the 2020 season. The issue that dominates the headlines is finance - what proportion of revenues the players and owners are each entitled to, how salaries are paid out, and the like. Money is an important point to settle in order to get the season going, but it feels like both the union and the teams are forgetting that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic here.
MLB’s proposal for controlling potential spread of COVID-19 is shaky at best. Players will be tested multiple times a week, and depending on site availability in a shortened season, may have their movements highly restricted - hotel to bus to playing facility and back to the bus to the hotel. This still leaves contact opportunities between players, clubhouse workers, any other personnel at the playing facilities, and any employees in the transport, hospitality or food areas, all critical to this plan.
The league isn’t going to test all those auxiliary personnel multiple times a week, and the nature of the work removed from playing facilities will make it hard to contact trace. MLB is following infectious testing with antibody testing, to best estimate whether someone has previously been infected with the virus. However, while antibody tests can be useful, they’re far from as reliable as most healthcare professionals would like.
The procedure for a positive test, meanwhile, would involve the infected player quarantining until two successive negative tests can be taken, and contact tracing all of the people that player was in close quarters with to deliver tests to them as well. Aside from the above concerns about non-baseball operations workers being harder to trace, the fundamental nature of sports means a player comes into contact with a whole lot of people every single day.
The league has discussed means of distancing players and other personnel, but there will almost certainly be larger rosters than the standard 26, meaning you have to distance more players in the same amount of space. This can work in the stadium itself, where it’s been proposed that some players will be relegated to the seats, but it’s going to be much harder to accomplish that same thing in the bullpen, the clubhouse, or the bus.
There are additional concerns that despite political directives to get players back to playing, the league has not co-ordinated properly with local and state-level healthcare providers. This is crucial because politicians, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have specifically called for teams to play in their home stadiums, but localities have been hit very differently by this pandemic. New York City alone has seen 20% of all COVID-19 deaths, and so the plans to return sports to NYC will be very different than plans for lesser-hit areas.
Local healthcare providers are the best equipped to customize reopening plans to particular jurisdictions, and their expertise is invaluable to developing the proper polices to deal with the return of baseball. Yet MLB has seemingly ignored any input or consultations from the very people best suited to build a working model to keep their employees safe and healthy.
Lastly, there has been considerable feedback among some fans that players should play without regard for their own health or that of their loved ones. “Athletes under thirty are at the lowest risk!” they cry. That doesn’t take into account players suffering the strokes that have been reported among young people infected with COVID-19, nor does it qualify any player who might have an undiagnosed heart or circulatory infection, who would be at much higher risk should a real outbreak occur among those involved in the game.
Adding to this is that some players have real concerns about spreading the virus to people they care about. Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole, two of the biggest stars in the game, both have babies due over the summer. You can’t blame either player for wanting to ensure their new child’s safety and health, and an opt-out must be allowed for players in these situations. And to head off the man who will certainly yell at me on Twitter about this, YOU should be allowed to take a break from YOUR job with pay as well, because again, pandemics tend to change the normal course of operations.
Adding to this is the fact that ownership is outright admitting that players are taking the lion’s share of the risk:
Besides the $$, MLB's proposal includes a revision to the Operations Manual that says players would have to sign an "acknowledgment of risk" before playing. Players believe it is designed to undermine their right to challenge MLB if it fails to provide a safe working environment.— Jorge Castillo (@jorgecastillo) June 8, 2020
Figuring out how to divvy up a reduced pot of revenue is a critical element in getting the season going, no doubt. I feel like a broken record in saying it though, there is still a pandemic. It feels like MLB has been insufficient in developing the proper responses to the very possible transmission of the virus within its ranks, and if it can’t figure out the basic public health and safety elements, there won’t be a season to squabble over.