The Question MLB Hasn’t Answered Yet

A draft of MLB’s new health and safety protocols for baseball during the coronavirus pandemic includes enough details to make even the most meticulous of contract lawyers swoon.

Social distancing is the watchword of the day. Gone are the dugouts; instead, players not on the field will be sitting in the stands–six feet apart, of course. High fives, fist bumps? Not this season. Gum, sunflower seeds, spitting? Keep it in your pockets and keep it in your mouth; anything that might possibly suggest the merest hint of unsanitary activity must be disinfected from the game. Pitchers get their own bullpen balls, their own rosin bags. Showers after the games are “discouraged;” driving back to your sanitized, isolated biodome while sweaty, exhausted, and caked in dirt is preferred. The proposal even outlines standing arrangements for the national anthem, because God forbid a global pandemic get in the way of MLB showing the meekest display of faux-patriotic fervor.

MLB’s plans describe the trees but miss the forest. For all the details included in the proposals, simple questions remain unanswered, and larger concerns are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a shrug.

Inconsistencies abound. “While maintaining proper social distancing” is the lynchpin of the proposal, except when it isn’t. Players must remain six feet apart at all times…but what of the catcher, close enough to the batter to whisper trash talk about the incoming pitch? What of the umpire, crouched behind home plate and towering over the catcher? Social distancing isn’t possible there; so MLB ignores it.

Adrian Beltre Gets 2,500th Hit, Unwanted Head Touching
“You gotta stay six feet apart!”

Once runners reach base, fielders are “encouraged to retreat several steps away from the baserunner” between pitches. Good luck keep runners from taking a socially-distant lead from first base. First basemen won’t be able to effectively cover the bag; throws to first to check the runner will become obsolete. And if the catcher tries to throw the runner out at second, I suppose social distancing no longer applies for the shortstop applying the tag?

Spare a thought, too, for the pitcher. They’re still allowed (their own personal) rosin bags, but other tools they use to increase their control and grip on the ball are being eliminated in the name of sanitary practices. Licking your fingers to improve your grip? Too unsanitary. Throwing the ball around the infield after an out? That’s a good way to spread germs. It’s also, coincidentally enough, a good way to spread pine tar from the infielders’ gloves to the ball before returning it to the pitcher. But so it goes.

Then there’s wider, off-field concerns. MLB’s plan to reopen hinges upon regular testing of players and team personnel. They’ve come to an agreement with the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah to provide tests for MLB with a guaranteed 24-hour turnaround period. But will SMRTL be able to keep up with the massive demand to ensure consistent testing during the MLB season? Is testing once or twice a week enough to prevent the spread of the virus through clubhouses and league offices?

If a player tests positive, Manfred told CNN in an interview last week, that individual will be quarantined for one week, and everyone that person came in contact with will be tested as soon as possible. But is one week enough? Most experts have suggested a fourteen-day isolation period for individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. And what happens if multiple players on the same team test positive? Will a team have to forfeit games, or play on with a roster comprised of more prospects than pros? Injuries always play a role in shaping a baseball season, but failing to make the postseason due to a prevalence of coronavirus in the clubhouse seems a particularly cruel trick of the baseball gods.

And then there’s the big one. The one question that MLB’s proposals don’t seem to address, the one that few members of the media want to discuss because the repercussions of the answer are so frightening.

What if someone dies?

It’s not an impossibility. The United States has already cleared one million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the country is fast approaching 100,000 deaths from the disease. Despite all the precautions MLB will institute, it stretches belief that they will make it through an 82-game season, plus postseason games, without a single player or member of team personnel testing positive for coronavirus.

MLB players are in strong physical shape and are in a lower-risk age group for the disease, but that is no guarantee of immunity or safety. Von Miller, Pro Bowl linebacker for the Denver Broncos, had difficulty breathing during his bout with coronavirus. Even if players recover, there are potential long-term effects of COVID-19 that could prove damaging to their careers and their livelihoods, as Washington Nationals’ reliever Sean Doollittle expressed in a Twitter thread. And even though players are in a lower-risk age bracket, many managers and clubhouse staff are in higher-risk age brackets. What happens if one of them catches the disease? What if one of them dies?

It’s a question of morality first and foremost. If an individual dies, would they have gotten sick and perished if MLB hadn’t restarted the season in the midst of a pandemic? Would Major League Baseball, despite all the safety measures put in place, be responsible for that individual’s death?

It is also, more callously, a public relations nightmare. Would the public–or even the law–hold MLB accountable for that individual’s death? How would Major League Baseball respond? Would they take responsibility, or demure and suggest that everybody involved knew the potential risks? In the wake of the Houston Astros scandal, in the midst of declining ticket sales, and with a potential labor conflict looming over the horizon, MLB can little afford a public relations fiasco of such a magnitude.

This is not to suggest that Major League Baseball should refrain from restarting until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available. Baseball, like all sports, comes with risk. Pitchers know they could rip the ligaments in their elbows to shreds. Batters know that every time they step in the batter’s box, they could see a 99 mile-per-hour fastball coming right at their head.

Coronavirus, though, presents a different sort of risk calculation. Baseball players know the risks for playing the game on the field; but what exactly are the risks for playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic? What is the responsible thing to do?

The answer is far from clear. Best guesses are frankly the best options. Different individuals will come to different decisions based on their own life experiences.

All those decisions, however, must come with the acknowledgement of risk. If Major League Baseball intends to play a season in 2020, some number of team personnel will likely catch COVID-19. There is the possibility, however small, that one, or more, may die. No amount of social distancing will fully eradicate those risks.

It’s on Major League Baseball and the players to decide whether the risks are worth it.

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