But “Conduct Outside of Club Facilities,” covered in one paragraph of section 2.6, feels vague and potentially problematic, according to multiple public health experts who reviewed the manual. It urges players, coaches and other team personnel to “exercise care” while away from the ballpark, then leaves each individual club to form an off-field code “to ensure they all act responsibly.”
“It’s basically an honor system, and you’re trusting that a whole lot of people understand how serious this is and will be careful and safe,” said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “This is a real gamble.”
Section 2.6 states that players, coaches and team personnel must “avoid situations in which high risk of contracting the virus is elevated.” That includes “large groups or indoor activities in which people are in close proximity to another.” And beyond the players, coaches and team personnel, the suggestion extends to their families, anyone living with them and other friends or acquaintances they may see on a day-to-day basis. It means the viability of a season — and the safety of all participating — hinges on complete buy-in from at least a couple thousand people.
This, public health experts say, is an incredibly risky model for a 60-game season that was agreed upon by MLB and the players’ union Tuesday. The NBA, by contrast, has plans to stage the rest of its season in a bubblelike environment at Disney World in Florida, in which players and staff cannot enter or reenter without quarantining. The NHL plans to designate two “hub” cities, with 12 teams in each, and could follow the NBA’s lead in implementing strict quarantine rules.
Baseball has a much looser plan, which includes air travel between cities, and does not have specific rules once players, coaches and staff leave team facilities. Among earlier models MLB explored for its return was a bubble centered around Phoenix and another using hubs in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Yet players expressed reluctance to remain sequestered from their families for months at a time, and the intense summer heat in those states also made the plan impractical.
Two people familiar with the dialogue surrounding the manual said there was never a discussion about placing more formal restrictions on players’ movements away from the field. But the expectation, according to those people, was that recommendations and guidelines would be reinforced constantly within each organization and players would police each other. Some outside the sport are already skeptical.
“This is a very difficult plan,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research and a Washington Nationals season ticket holder. “I mean it could succeed, but it would be very difficult for this plan to succeed for all the teams.
“And I guess the question is if it doesn’t and you have some teams that have to stop playing because of their numbers of infected players and personnel, then what happens to your baseball season? People are going to get sick. It then becomes a matter of how many.”
Behavior outside team facilities has driven recent outbreaks across sports. The Philadelphia Phillies had 12 people test positive for the coronavirus at their spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla., which they shut down last week. The Toronto Blue Jays shut down their facility in Dunedin, Fla., amid concerns about the virus’s continued spread in the state, which is home to the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. Then MLB moved quickly to shut down all spring training sites.
Outside baseball, the Orlando Pride, a team in the National Women’s Soccer League, withdrew from the league’s season-opening tournament after some players and staff members tested positive for the virus. According to reports, players went to bars and then spread the virus. A similar situation reportedly unfolded for the LSU football team this month. It led to a handful of positive tests and about a fourth of the team self-quarantining.
But it is not just shortsighted trips to bars that pose danger. The experts explained that, even if everyone in and surrounding baseball was extremely careful, there are many complicating factors: Florida, Arizona and Texas create disproportionate risks given case trends and relaxed state regulations. The structure of the shortened schedule means that it is likely that most, if not all, of the 30 teams will visit one of those places this summer. Then there are the five teams — the Rays, Marlins, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks — that plan to regularly train and play either in or near hot spots.
MLB will test players, coaches and essential staff every other day. But even that method is flimsy, Binney said, because of how long a player could spread the virus before he knew of a positive result. He laid out a situation in which a player tested negative on a Tuesday, became infectious on Wednesday and showed no symptoms, then was tested again Thursday and spread the virus for two days before anyone knew he was infectious.
“I’d rest a lot easier if the testing was every day, but even then you still have those windows where the virus could spread through a facility like wildfire,” Binney said. “A good analogy is that a below-average shortstop is going to miss some grounders. It will be impossible for these tests and protocols to catch everything because of all the people involved and the amount of disease we still have in this country right now."
When at the facility or when traveling with the team, players have strict rules to follow. During road trips, they cannot leave the hotel for meals. They must arrive at the ballpark in specific time windows. They cannot chew tobacco or spit — two treasured habits — and on-site showers will be very limited.
It’s the rest of the time — mornings, late nights, off days — that puts the onus on players, coaches, staff and their families to exercise extreme caution. Zuckerman suggested potential penalties for “reckless behavior,” such as docked pay, to further incentivize safety and caution. Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, said it is prudent for MLB to trust players, coaches and staff unless it is proved that it can’t. She said there is “public in public health,” meaning those playing and coaching should have agency in a model designed for their well-being.
“If they can’t trust the players, there are probably larger issues there,” Nuzzo said. “So I think you start with a position of trust and make sure they understand what the benefits are. If there are problems, you deal with it then. I think if you go into it with suspicion and mistrust, that will be relayed and people will feel they’re on opposite sides, not working toward the same goal.”
By July 1, the soft start of training camps, the experiment will be in full swing. Players will undergo tests and complete symptom questionnaires before being admitted to team facilities. Workouts will unfold in phases to keep groups small and at a distance. Then, if that goes well, the plan is to begin games late in the month.
When the operations manual trickled out Tuesday night, so did another report: Three Colorado Rockies players tested positive for the coronavirus after a workout at Coors Field in Denver. On Wednesday, Sportsnet reported that several Blue Jays players and staff members have tested positive. Expectations are clashing with reality, even before the return begins.
“I will be stunned if every team makes it through spring training without having to suspend operations and close down for a couple weeks,” Binney said. “I think it’s going to happen to at least one team.”
Dave Sheinin and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.
Read more on baseball: