Larry Bowa, a 55-year baseball man, had the same reaction as some casual fans when he read reports last weekend that detailed Major League Baseball’s 67-page health and safety protocols for a potential 2020 season.
No saunas or hydrotherapy tubs in the training room? No high-fives or fist bumps? Limited or no use of indoor batting cages? No fraternizing with players on opposing teams? No showering at the ballpark?
“I read all those rules and everything, and I want to be optimistic, but ...,” Bowa, the former Phillies shortstop, coach and manager, said by phone this week. “I’d be disappointed if we didn’t play, but I can honestly tell you, as much as I love baseball, I wouldn’t be mad if this thing did get canceled.”
That sentiment almost certainly is shared by some of the nearly 1,200 active members of the Players Association. If the risk of contracting COVID-19 is too high for players to take a shower in the clubhouse after a game, maybe it’s too risky to play at all this year.
The Players Association spent most of the week reviewing MLB’s health and safety manual, obtaining advice from its medical experts, and seeking input from its rank and file. Union leadership delivered its initial feedback to the league Thursday, and now the sides will get to work on making revisions to a document that MLB officials intended as a first draft.
Specifics of the players’ response, according to multiple reports, included a desire for more clarity on (a) steps that will be taken if (probably when) someone tests positive for the virus; (b) sanitization protocol within clubhouses and other facilities; (c) protections for high-risk players and family members; and (d) access to pre- and postgame therapies.
But the biggest suggestion — also, perhaps, the most difficult to implement — was a request for more frequent testing. MLB’s plan calls for testing “multiple times” per week but doesn’t specify how many.
“I don’t see us playing without testing every day,” Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout told ESPN.
Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of medical ethics and health, said recently that he believed weekly testing would be sufficient if players were quarantined in an Arizona “bubble.” All bets are off, though, if players are moving about freely.
In reviewing MLB’s proposed health and safety guidelines, it’s notable that the rules are more stringent for road teams. While players aren’t limited in their activities at home, albeit in a responsible manner and with masks and proper social distancing, they are prohibited from leaving the team hotel on the road unless it’s to go to the ballpark.
Never mind the virtual impossibility of enforcing such an edict. The protocols are similarly restrictive to MLB’s initial concept of isolating all 30 teams in the Phoenix area for the season, a brainstorm that was widely rejected by players who didn’t want to leave their families behind during a pandemic.
In South Korea, where professional baseball resumed earlier this month, players aren’t barred from doing what they please away from the ballpark. But they also have been told that one positive test likely will trigger a three-week suspension of the entire league, according to former Phillies pitcher Ben Lively, a threat that only reinforces responsible behavior. Lively plays for the Samsung Tigers in the KBO League in South Korea.
Then again, South Korea has been a worldwide model for widespread testing and tracing, areas in which the United States has lagged.
MLB is paying to transform the Utah facility that conducts its performance-enhancing-drug testing into a COVID-19 lab — and therefore, the league insists, not take equipment or supplies that would otherwise be used by the general public. That arrangement will produce up to 14,500 tests per week, according to ESPN.
Daily testing would require significantly more resources, which might not be available.
Players don’t want to be restricted from the use of hot tubs in the training room, indoor batting cages underneath the stands, showers in the clubhouse, and other amenities that they view as essential to daily competition in big-league games. Daily testing and rigorous monitoring might be required before MLB can safely allow those otherwise normal activities.
Longer and more extensive quarantines might be needed, too. Under MLB’s plan, players or personnel who test positive would be quarantined only until they receive two negative tests within a 24-hour period, not necessarily for the 14 days recommended by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Moreover, MLB would quarantine only the person who tests positive, not those with whom the person had contact.
“I think the world needs baseball. I really do,” former Phillies ace Cole Hamels, now with the Atlanta Braves, said recently. “But everything has to be copacetic. There’s so many things that are out of our control.”
Including, of course, a financial component. Owners and players must agree on a system of player compensation for an abbreviated season that would be played without spectators. The sides, with a 40-year history of mutual distrust, have dug in on their respective positions.
But the money issue is moot if players don’t feel safe returning to work. Given the stringency of MLB’s 67-page manual, daily testing is the only way to make the players feel at ease, especially considering players and support personnel are incurring far greater risk in having a season than league officials and team owners.
“I really believe — this is my own gut — players right now, the money is obviously a factor for them, but I think they’re really worried about their safety,” Bowa said. “All it’s going to take is one guy [to test positive] — and that possibility could be high — and then it goes to another guy and another guy. Let’s face it: Lives are more important than baseball games.”