Last weekend Major League Baseball leaked a 67-page draft of proposed health protocols that could be put in place if and when the baseball season begins. As we discussed at the time, the protocols were rigorous.
So rigorous, in fact, that I questioned whether they were truly practical. The micro-level of behavior control the proposal would require, implemented in a matter of a few weeks, seemed extreme.
No showers at the ballpark. No use of taxis. No socializing with anyone besides family off the field, even where it is permitted in a post-lockdown environment. Use of separate baseballs for everything. No use of spas or massage tables or things players routinely use to deal with injuries, aches, or pains. It all seemed like a tall order, especially given how routine and habit-driven athletes are.
So you will not be surprised to read, as Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported yesterday, that some players are skeptical of the workability of all of this:
“Not getting to use any of the facilities that help recover our bodies is going to be a problem,” Miami Marlins pitcher Brandon Kintzler said. One player who requested anonymity asked, “If we all test negative, why do we have to use separate baseballs?” . . . The toughest thing will be relying on the younger players to really contain their social circles to just teammates and immediate family,” one agent said. “Containing that circle of people is probably the most important part of the plan to make it work.”
The players quoted think they can make it work, but it’s clearly going to be a challenge.
At the same time, some public health experts suggest that even if the players can make it work, the plan may still not be good enough.
Anthony McCullough and Marc Carig of The Athletic spoke with multiple public health experts about MLB’s proposal and, while there was general praise for it as an initial effort, they agree with the practical barriers the players point out and believe it lacks some necessary components:
The doctors and epidemiologists relayed praise for the scope and seriousness of the document. They also raised questions about the frequency of testing, the supply-chain issues inherent in producing the necessary number of tests, the lack of mention of a plan for a player testing positive on the road, and the ability to enforce compliance over the course of many months.
“I applaud the effort, and the extensiveness of the document,” said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, a professor of infectious disease at the Baylor College of Medicine. “But it’s incredibly challenging to maintain this level of adherence to keep everyone (involved in the process) — as well as (those in) the communities in which they are living — safe.”
The experts The Athletic spoke to also questioned whether MLB’s proposed testing frequency is sufficient while simultaneously noting that the resources may not even exist for what the league is proposing. The level of protective equipment the sport would likewise need would, according to some experts quoted in the piece, strain already-strained existing supplies. One suggested that if MLB were to put off its season even a month it would be helpful in this regard.
Not that they’re saying “no way, MLB and the players can’t pull this off or shouldn’t try.” Indeed, the biggest message that comes through is the great uncertainty of all of this. Even the foremost experts in epidemiology do not know what could happen once you start adding variables to all of this and feely admit that what are best practices are, on some level, guesses. An experiment in real time.
Which suggests to me that the biggest danger here is not necessarily starting the season or not starting the season. Rather, it involves MLB and the players getting locked into a course of action that they feel they cannot alter if things go sideways. What happens if they agree on a plan that seems good at the outset but which doesn’t hold together in practice? Would MLB and the players be willing and able, in such a case, to change things on the fly? Would they be willing to pull the plug on the season altogether if things go really bad, or would inertia take over. Would they, as everyone is baseball is so intent on saying, play through it?
I say this with a pretty good appreciation that, historically, baseball does not turn on a dime and does not tend to admit or address its mistakes until seasons end or leadership changes. When they implement a rule change and it doesn’t work out, they tend to wait until the offseason to address it. When they make start big initiatives that don’t go well they tend to claim in real time that everything is fine and leave the reflection and admissions of mistakes for a later date.
Against that backdrop, if baseball and its players break their necks and make big gambles in order to get on the field in July, would they be willing to stop this experiment in August or September if it became necessary? That’s the big question I have.