Major League Baseball has submitted a detailed list of safety proposals to the players’ union, extensively outlining how the game would be played amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported on the more than 60 pages’ worth of measures that will drastically impact the day-to-day lives of the players and make changes to the way the sport looks to viewers watching on TV.
It's a lot. But the volume of proposals shows the challenges facing this league and all the others as they try to return to their respective fields in the middle of a pandemic.
How — and how often — will players be tested?
Of the utmost importance is the league’s testing plan, and Rosenthal reported on detailed new descriptions of how that would work after it was reported on by USA Today and by The Wall Street Journal last week.
Players, managers, coaches, umpires and team staffers who come into contact with players will be tested multiple times per week, though not on a daily basis, mostly via oral or nasal swabs, with test results coming back within 24 hours. Blood tests will be conducted less often. Everyone will have their temperature taken twice a day.
Those with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, exhibiting other symptoms or confirmed to be in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 would be sent for a rapid test.
Anyone heading to a ballpark will be required to take their temperature at home, and if their temperature is above 100 degrees, they will not be allowed in.
Anyone who tests positive must self-isolate away from the game, though it was not specified for how long.
All clubs are required to perform contact tracing, though not specified is whether the league will follow the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines of recommending that anyone who came into contact with someone who tested positive — in this case, teammates and players on other teams — self-isolate for 14 days. Under those guidelines, if a player tests positive during the season, his entire team would be recommended to self-isolate. It was reported earlier this week that Major League Baseball does not wish for teams or the league as a whole to shut down and wouldn’t require such isolation.
According to Rosenthal's report, Major League Baseball is committed to using the best available testing to improve the invasiveness of tests and the speed of results. Additionally, the league plans to provide free testing to players’ families and health-care workers and first responders in major league cities as a public service.
How will the league encourage social distancing?
The most upheaval to the everyday life of Major League Baseball players seems to be coming in the form of the league’s efforts to keep players as far away from each other as possible.
Players are typically on top of each other in a clubhouse, team facilities, while traveling and of course during games, where the dugouts are usually packed with people. Though baseball lends itself to distancing more than sports like football or basketball, there are still unavoidable instances when players are fewer than the recommended six feet apart each other — think every time a hitter steps to the plate near the catcher — or are required to come into physical contact, tag plays being the most common in the latter category.
But baseball’s proposed version of social distancing will begin in spring training, where players will arrive in staggered shifts and workouts will at first be limited to groups of five or fewer pitchers and catchers at a time.
During both spring training and the regular season, it’s on teams to discourage people from gathering in team facilities. Meetings will take place virtually or outdoors, where people can spread out. Lockers will have to be six feet apart from one another, a huge change to the typical zero feet apart from each other they typically are. That will be an impossibility in major league clubhouses, requiring the creation of auxiliary clubhouses, which the league prefers be located outdoors. Showering will be discouraged for players, as will be use of indoor hitting facilities, which players use all the time. Group dining is discouraged, and saunas, steam rooms and cryotherapy chambers are a no go, as well.
During games, only “necessary” players will be allowed in the dugouts. This is one of the few things that doesn’t get a detailed explanation. Does that mean only players playing in the game at a given moment? Will reserves and starting pitchers not playing that day be required to sit in the stands with inactive players?
And here’s the one that could be most noticeable on TV: Defenders are encouraged to step away from base runners in between pitches. It means Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo will definitely be getting their steps in, taking frequent breaks from holding runners on at first base.
Obviously there will be no mound visits, but catchers will be allowed to stand on the grass in front of home plate and give signs to infielders.
How will the league attempt to prevent the spread of the virus?
While baseball might lend itself to distancing better than other sports, all it takes is one pitch for two people to touch the ball and potentially exchange germs. Pitchers are constantly touching their faces, heads and bodies before delivering a pitch to a catcher, who then touches the ball, or the batter, who puts the ball in play, only for it to be touched by a fielder or multiple fielders.
Even though baseball players don’t come into physical contact as frequently as basketball players, they are still throwing their germs around the diamond on a regular basis.
So what’s the league going to do about that? There will be a new baseball any time a ball is put in play and touched by multiple players.
Additionally, you can say goodbye to Gatorade buckets. There will be no communal drink stations, instead players will either have to bring their own personal drink containers with them into the dugout or teams will have to install contactless dispensers with disposable cups.
As previously reported, there will be no spitting or high fives allowed. Also banned is the use of smokeless tobacco and sunflower seeds, as well as fist bumps and hugs. No hugging. It's something we've all had to get used to over the last few months but still a little shocking to see listed as part of a set of rules. Players will be encouraged to wash their hands after every half inning and every time they handle equipment.
Non-playing personnel — whether that means only managers and coaches or anyone not currently on the field is unclear — will be required to wear masks. Lineup cards will no longer be exchanged, instead getting sent between managers via an app. Dugout phones will be disinfected after each use.
Anyone leaning on the dugout railing during a game must do so while using a personalized towel.
How will the league ensure safety when teams travel to other cities?
When an idea to quarantine the season completely in one location was discussed earlier this year, players balked, not wanting to be sequestered away from their families for months.
That was a perfectly reasonable complaint, but the alternative is what’s being proposed now: still having teams travel from one city to another in the middle of a pandemic.
The league’s geographically structured season schedule remains a bit of a head-scratcher. Teams will only play opponents from their division and the corresponding geographic division in the other league. So, for example, the White Sox will exclusively play their four AL Central rivals and the five teams from the NL Central during the 82-game regular season. That’s being done in an effort to “minimize” travel, though what makes a flight between Chicago and Pittsburgh safer than a flight between Chicago and Tampa remains unexplained.
Anyway, the league’s current proposal includes plenty of travel between cities, and there are plenty of travel-related measures included in the health-and-safety proposals.
Everyone is pretty much being asked to isolate at hotels while on the road, though that’s only an official decree for the non-players in a traveling party. Players will not be mandated to abide by such rules, only strongly encouraged. Probably something to do with getting them to sign off on all this.
Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout criticized the quarantined-season plan when it was being discussed, saying he wouldn't want his life to become strictly going from a hotel to work every day. Well, that’s what the league is basically suggesting for teams when they travel.
Non-players are simply not allowed to leave their hotels for anything other than games without approval. Players are only allowed to have immediate family members in their hotel rooms and are discouraged from — though not prohibited from — socializing with other family or friends in other cities.
When at home, players are allowed to stay wherever they want — their homes — but are supposed to avoid public areas.
That’s a lot. What do we make of all this?
Kudos to Major League Baseball for taking this extremely seriously. From this exhaustive list of proposals, it seems they are doing everything they can, next to making it a rule, to make sure that players only go from where they sleep to where they work without coming into contact with anyone else.
It sounds like there will be an awful lot of testing, even if there are still some red flags that arise. It still seems possible that an asymptomatic player who is infected could transmit the virus to others before knowing he’s positive, one of the main concerns folks from all walks of life have in the middle of this pandemic. And though it wasn’t specified in Rosenthal’s report, previous reports have outlined that Major League Baseball will not require the teammates of players who test positive to isolate, ignoring the contact-tracing guidelines as outlined by the CDC. That could be problematic and could lead to more positive tests.
But in general, while it still might not be a good idea for a professional sports league to forge ahead with a season in the middle of a pandemic — the relaxing of preventative measures by certain states across the country is reportedly projected to cause a steep increase in the number of cases and deaths — the league does seem to be taking a massive amount of precautions.
How much of this will be enforceable remains an issue. High fives, fist bumps and spitting are like breathing to baseball players, and even those with the best intentions to do what they can to abide by these measures and prevent the spread of the virus might have a difficult time retraining themselves.
Playing baseball and providing a 100-percent safe environment seem to be mutually exclusive in these times. But if the league is going to press on with a season, these proposals do a lot — even if they don’t do everything — to attempt to keep everyone healthy and safe.