As Major League Baseball teams began their summer workouts, players over the weekend started giving their first impressions of the procedures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including testing, social distancing and spreading activities throughout the stadium.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ standout first baseman Paul Goldschmidt told reporters he felt “pretty confident in the setup.” Lance McCullers Jr., a pitcher for the Houston Astros, added, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel it was something we could sustain.” New York Yankees’ star pitcher Gerrit Cole agreed.
“Maybe I’m a little bullish, but I think we can do this,” he said about the season.
Despite some early confidence, many people in baseball — and health experts outside of it — wonder how long things can last. The 60-game season is scheduled to begin July 23, sandwiched by three weeks of practice and a monthlong postseason.
“I talked to a lot of guys across the league, and they’re texting me a lot,” said Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the sport’s premier player who sounded unsure when talking to reporters about playing this season, because his wife is expecting their first child next month. “I’m not going to name any names, but they’re all thinking the same thing: Is this going to work?”
There are many potential pitfalls to MLB’s plans. Unlike the restricted sites that will be employed beginning this month by the NBA and MLS outside Orlando, Florida, baseball players and team employees will live at home during the season and still travel for road games, though less often than usual. Teams will be tasked with managing the behavior of players and employees away from the stadium.
There are more than 8,000 people subject to MLB’s 113-page operations plan. More than 30 players have tested positive for the virus, and at least 19 teams have reported one case or more among their ranks. D.J. LeMahieu of the Yankees and Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves were the latest All-Star players to test positive for the coronavirus. And Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals raised concerns Sunday about the delay in receiving test results.
But a more significant undercurrent is how the virus is playing out in the communities where MLB teams have ballparks. Cases were rising in 37 states as of Sunday — especially in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
While MLB’s health and safety regulations and testing at least multiple times a week might work well for the Boston Red Sox or the Yankees — teams in cities where new cases have stabilized — it is less likely to work for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University.
“The metaphor I’ve used: MLB’s plan is like a subpar shortstop,” he said. “If he only has to field four or five ground balls, he might be OK. You might not really notice how bad he is. But if he has to start fielding 20 a night, you’re going to start seeing the weaknesses in that shortstop pretty quick.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, was optimistic that MLB’s plan could succeed even if it was not perfect because management and players alike were invested in it.
“They know that this is a contagious infection, so their individual inclination has to be reined in in order to protect the group,” Schaffner said. “So if somebody wants to go out at night to a bar, that’s not a good idea.”
When MLB and the players’ union agreed on the health and safety regulations, they considered the possibility that the season could be suspended or canceled.
Both sides agreed to give Rob Manfred, the league’s commissioner, the power to do either under three conditions: if travel restrictions worsen; if Manfred determines, after consulting its medical experts and the players’ union, that a “material change in circumstances” posed “an unreasonable health and safety risk to players or staff” to stage games; or if the number of players unavailable because of COVID-19 is “so great that the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.”
Binney said the last two criteria were too subjective. His suggested alternatives: a firm redline that the public can hold the league accountable to or an independent board of experts to decide if stopping would be best.
Manfred cited “competitive integrity” when asked on “The Dan Patrick Show” last week how many positive cases would it take to pause the season. “If we have a team or two that’s really decimated with the number of people who have the virus and can’t play for any significant period of time, it can have a real impact on the competition and we have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing,” he said.
The rules also allow MLB to tighten coronavirus protocols more if needed. If necessary, MLB could even relocate teams during the regular season or playoffs to neutral sites, spring training facilities or other teams’ stadiums.
Beyond increases in actual cases, MLB also has a moral judgment to make, Binney said, if the situation deteriorates in some of its communities but the teams themselves could carry on. “Can you be the guy in the mansion on a hill looking down at the peasants?” Binney said.
While several players expressed hope the season would be completed, they also acknowledged the volatility of the virus and the potential weaknesses in their plan.
“It’s not going to be bulletproof by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the right steps,” said the Yankees’ Zack Britton, the team’s players’ union representative. And the Red Sox’s Collin McHugh, a member of the union’s executive committee, added: “If we’re not extremely diligent on our part, it doesn’t take a lot for the walls to start closing in on us.”
Even though at least eight players have opted out of the season — David Price of the Los Angeles Dodgers said Saturday that he would not play — more could be coming. Like Trout, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey told reporters Saturday that he would see how things go with workouts and in the country over the next couple weeks to decide whether he would play this year.
“There’s still some doubt that we’re going to have a season now,” Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, who is also part of the players’ union’s executive committee, told reporters Sunday. “By no means is this a slam dunk. I think we’re going to give this our best effort, but for me to sit here and say 100% I think would be a lie.”