Inside MLB’s 2020 season plan to play through a pandemic

Ten days ago, while Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continued to discuss finances in the return to game discussions, an official said it all looked like "Game of Thrones". All this struggle for money and power when the real danger to the MLB 2020 season – the existential threat – appeared elsewhere.

"COVID's" white walkers "are real," he said.


Less than a week before players attend training camps in anticipation of a season scheduled for July 23 or 24, baseball is facing the difficulty of playing a season in the midst of a global pandemic. Calling the task scary does not do. The spread of the coronavirus, the increase in cases in recent weeks, the travel from city to city by teams and the lack of rules that explicitly limit the off-field movement of players and officials introduce a harsh truth about the resumption of the game:

There will be cases of COVID-19 throughout the MLB.


The PGA Tour is discovering the hard way that even in the most socially distanced sport, the ubiquity of the virus is undefeated. It is a reality that the MLB and the players are willing to live with – until they are not. The parties' 101-page operations manual for 2020 does not specifically address how a season would be carried out in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in a team.

Although the processes implemented to deal with individual positive cases are respectful and reinforced with even more specificity by each team, the language related to the actions that the sport would perform with an avalanche of cases is general and vague.

The answers to these hypotheticals would come in the moment. It is important to understand that baseball does not exist in a vacuum. The reopening of the sport will add tens of thousands of interactions, each with a level of risk, every day. The risk for individual players, due to age and general health, is minimal, but it is still very real. The risk for older employees – managers, coaches, training staff – is much more palpable. The risk to the sport is literally immeasurable.


There are countless questions about how baseball will – or can – survive in the next four months. Here are 20 of the most pertinent:


How many players will have a positive result in the next week after screening before opening the training grounds?

League personnel, team officials and players are preparing for a deluge of good points – both in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that detects whether a person currently has COVID-19 and in the antibody test that identifies past infections.

About 1,800 players are expected to perform on the fields. A large number live in Arizona, Florida, Texas and California, four states with recent peaks. Others are coming from countries around the world. To think that baseball will somehow be immune – which differs demonstrably from the general population – would be naive.

In the screening, players will send saliva for the PCR test and blood for the antibody test. COVID-positive players could number 25, 50, 100, more. Those who obtain positive results through the PCR test will isolate immediately until they fulfill certain measures:

  • Two negative COVID-19 tests, performed at least 24 hours apart

  • No fever for at least 72 hours (while not using fever medicine) and no respiratory symptoms, as judged by a team doctor or medical team

  • The team doctor and a joint committee composed of two doctors and a non-medical representative from MLB and MLBPA consider that the person does not pose a risk of spreading the infection

There are other potential obstacles. Individuals must meet local health requirements. Team doctors can request a cardiac evaluation. Contact tracking for the positive individual will occur. Those who were in your presence should isolate themselves until a negative result on a COVID test is returned. They will undergo more frequent temperature tests for 10 days and will not be able to return unless they are asymptomatic.

This is too much.

It's just the beginning. And it has to happen if baseball is played in 2020.

So why play?

This is not an irrational question. The answer is that players say they want to, owners say they want to, federal authorities want and local health officials still have to say they can't. There was a very simple binary at hand: season or not. Baseball chose the season.

Everyone involved recognizes that baseball in 2020 – sport in 2020 – is a house of cards. It only takes one municipality to threaten the entire enterprise. Yes, MLB has the ability to move games. Let's say a governor blocks a state. A team scheduled to host games could theoretically move to a backup location. But what if it happens to two teams? Or three? Or five? At some point, turnover may become too excessive to continue.

As one executive said, "Baseball that makes people sick is not baseball."

So could this go completely to the side?

Oh, absolutely. And if the above scenario happens, the March deal between players and owners will give Commissioner Rob Manfred broad powers to end the season.

On Tuesday, when the league and the union were finalizing the health and safety protocol, there was a slight language delay about Manfred's ability to direct a season. The March deal already dealt with Manfred's "right to suspend or cancel games". The language in question, according to a copy obtained by ESPN, said that Manfred could do so if "the number of players unavailable to provide services due to COVID-19 is so great that the competitive integrity of the season is undermined".

The general newsroom offers Manfred ample space – which makes sense because, as a commissioner, he already has baseball's best interest clause. The players, skeptical after months of negotiations became ugly, were reticent about Manfred's unilateral ability to cancel a season, when it would immediately end his ability to get paid. Eventually, the players agreed, paving the way for the return of the season.

It is worth mentioning: MLB continues with training camps after seven Philadelphia Phillies players and five employees testing positive for COVID-19. The teams publicly recognized at least a dozen other positive cases. At a minimum, define a baseline to illustrate what the league will accept.

So, what constitutes the weakening of competitive integrity?

The answer may fall first on the teams. The operations manual places a significant amount of burden on organizations: equipping their stadiums to fulfill the mandates of social distance, discovering the logistics in case of positive tests at home and on the road, organizing trips that comply with strict rules and, perhaps most importantly, to judge when this nebulous notion of competitive integrity is violated.

"We haven't figured that out yet," said a general manager this week, and he is not alone. A team that has three positive tests, but everyone is launching pitchers, defends competitive integrity and moves to shut down? Probably not. But what if the intake test returns positive and they need to pass the first two weeks of quarantined training camp and are not ready for the first two weeks of a season that lasts only nine?

Or maybe there are more positives. Five? Seven? Ten? Five positives and 10 others exposed and in need of quarantine? How many are too many?

There is no number defined in the operations manual. The fail-safe key of the system depends on judgment. This scares many people – not just players – who fear that gambling is a moral hazard. Will MLB, cautious about shutting down after spending so much time and effort starting, not act decisively? Do owners, frightened by the damage they do to their businesses in the short and long term, pressure to gamble? Will players, who are at risk, have an equal voice in the matter?

Be even more granular: what if there is a series of positive tests … but only one case is symptomatic? The intake test can provide a general answer to this question, with most positive aspects likely to be asymptomatic.

What happens if someone is hospitalized?

The operations manual doesn't answer that either. It is one thing to have asymptomatic players or even those with flu-like symptoms. Hospitalization is a completely different situation – and the league's reaction to this hypothetical scenario, one player said, may not necessarily be consistent.

"If it is a public servant that nobody knows, will it end the season? Probably not," he said. "If it is Mike Trout or someone big on the Yankees? It can. "

Most teams meet in stadiums for the training ground. They will start to travel regularly in less than a month. Is that the best way to do this?

There is no good way. It is life with a highly communicable disease in a nation that has hampered the response and seems unable to do what almost every other country in the world has. Even if the MLB and the players are perfect, that may not be enough. And they will not be perfect.

Just think: the other two MLB traction plans considered were a bubble of 30 teams in Arizona or center cities in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Either option would seem disastrous now. Coronavirus makes planning almost impossible, which makes preparation and flexibility much more important.

This applies explicitly to Rob Manfred. This is your biggest test of leadership. He proved to be an astute negotiator and made billions of dollars for the owners. Mastering the elements aimed at the work audience proved to be more illusory. The mess of stealing plaques, calling the World Series trophy a "metal piece," the ugliness of economic negotiations – Manfred found a punching bag useful for fans.

This is completely different. It requires moral clarity and foresight, the latter of which is especially rare when no one can predict where the coronavirus will go. What no leader wants, either, is to be the person who reacted too late. So, with season control and the ability to reschedule games, Manfred doesn't have to shy away from acting quickly when necessary.

Can anyone else quit the sport?

Governments. Federal, state, local. Politicians and health officials. Just a state order in California. If five teams need to move to alternative locations, how quickly can they do this? Do Western divisions play fewer games than the rest of the league? Or is this too much for the game to take and a prelude to a shutdown?

The notion of a state that is disrupting the season is not overstated. The New York, New Jersey and Connecticut plan to quarantine travelers from hot areas could jeopardize the Yankees and Mets' games against Tampa Bay and Miami. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo exempted them.

Other states could make similar requests. And if they do, baseball may not be protected.

So, how is baseball trying to prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

Temperature, test and distance checks. Players measure their temperatures using a personal digital thermometer twice earlier in the day before entering the stadium, where they will be tracked again. If a player's temperature is recorded at 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, he will be tested. The players and the technical team will be tested every two days. In addition, there are measures of social distance, reinforced by everything from lockers five feet away to inactive players sitting in the stands and strict rules for boarding and disembarking.

Will it work?

Uhhhhhhhh. Could. There are some optimists in baseball. There are some pessimists in baseball. It looks a lot like the country, actually.

Optimists believe that the protocol is strong, the determination to play is motivational and that the league and teams can face positive tests and continue playing. Pessimists fear that the group meeting, the trip, the presence of those who are not tested as often as players or coaches and the bad timing of baseball's return will coincide with the growing number of cases.

Who can help with the likelihood of success?

The players. The protocol deals with "covered individuals" – all the people who come and go from the stadium every day. But the words of the protocol are addressed to those young, wealthy and without consequences: "The MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from the Club facilities, but expects Covered Individuals in each Club to ensure the careless actions of a single individual puts the entire team (and their families) at risk, and the covered individuals of each club must agree to their own code of conduct outside the field so that they and their family members minimize the risk to others ".

This last part is especially true. Several veteran players have told ESPN that they intend to lead direct and severe meetings with the team after arriving on the training ground. Everyone had some version of the same message: The only way to work is if we do everything we can to avoid COVID. Our health depends on it. The health of our families depends on it. Our wages depend on it. Our livelihood depends on it. And our ability to win a championship depends on it. Especially in a season of 60 games, the team that remains healthy will be the team that wins. So don't be selfish. No clubs. No packed bars. No short-term gain is worth putting at risk what this team can accomplish.

Can they do that?

You recycled this GIF.

I know. It is just appropriate. Are you trying to say that 900 active players and 1,800 in total will practice the monks' self-discipline? Is that … illusory? Naive? Hilarious? D. All of the above? That is right.

And that is just leaving. The leaders will also address behavior at the stadium. The habits of the players tend to be ingrained, and yet the protocol, as ridiculous as it may be in some places, is assiduous enough to provide a good roadmap for getting around COVID. With regard to sales, it is not bad.

The worst part is that, although a good proportion of players are likely to follow the proper steps, just one that doesn't. A guy who goes out, who gets very close to the others, who feels a tickle in the throat on an airplane and tries to quell his cough. In baseball – in sports – it's never just about case numbers, hospitalizations and death rates. The optical element that exists is powerful and trains a magnifying glass in small hot spots. The only industry comparable to sport, in terms of the news that positive coronavirus tests generate, is politics.

What happens when a player tests positive on the road?

If the house is within walking distance, he can go there. If not … he's probably stuck in a highway town for at least a week or two.

Communication and cooperation between teams will be of paramount importance if baseball takes place in 2020. Players will have a positive outcome on the road, and when they do, the road team will want to consult with the home team to find a suitable place to stay. , whether it is a hotel, condominium or not. In addition, the team whose player is positive ensures that an employee remains in the city with him to ensure his well-being and recovery. The teams will already do the same in cases of concussion.

Can players simply choose not to participate in the season?

Absolutely. Some are already planning this. With the date of the training camp report, already on Wednesday, for pitchers and catchers and groups of 60 players being filled, the word should be filtered in the coming days.

Cases considered to be high risk – with a pre-existing condition that makes them more susceptible to COVID – can do so and retain their salary and length of service. Those who are not at high risk but have a pregnant wife (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler among them) or an immunocompromised family member can sit down, like any other player, but neither receives payment nor receives service.

It is worth mentioning: if the season is canceled during the training camp, players will receive their full service last year – even if they have chosen not to participate – because the March contract grants it. If the season starts and stops … it's a different story.

What are groups of 60 players?

Quickly: From now on, at least for the next questions, we will operate how the season is going, just because the caveats of all the other paragraphs just don't fit particularly well.

Then, the pools. Since the minor baseball championship is not taking place this year, MLB teams do not have an agricultural system from which to draw players. As coronavirus outbreaks are very real possibilities, the need for an extra-deep checklist arose. Thus, teams can invite up to 60 players for training.

The teams will enter the field with 30 players and a taxi squad for three people who will accompany them in all games. Two weeks after the season, the list drops to 28, and two weeks later they are 26 years old until the end of the season. In the meantime, the remaining players in the 60-player group will be playing games between players and having a ton of downtime.

"Do you want to know who I worry about getting sick with?" said an agent. "They are all children who will not be in the big league squad and will have all the free time in the world and will be packed in apartments because they are literally not being paid to play."

Here's what he means: as part of the March contract, the MLB advanced players $ 170 million in salary. This money was divided into four categories. Players with guaranteed contracts received $ 286,500. Those with minor divisions in the leagues received $ 60,000, $ 30,000, or $ 16,500. Players on your team's list of 40 players for the first time, as Atlanta's best prospect Cristian Pache, received the lowest sum.

Pache's contract requires a minor split of $ 46,000 in the league. This is in a full season. In this partial season, if he spends his entire no on the Braves' active list, Pache would receive a salary of about $ 17,000. That means he could spend the next three months playing baseball – training in July, August and September getting ready – for a total of $ 500.

While it is true that Pache received the remainder of that money as an advance, the idea of ​​him receiving $ 40 a week – before taxes – is comical. The same is true with the fact that there are many more young players on the 40-player roster in the same position.

The forgiveness of the advance for players in split deals, totaling about $ 33 million, was part of the picture that emerged from Manfred's meeting with the union's executive director, Tony Clark. The MLBPA pushed for more games and a bigger cut of potential TV money after the season, and when the league imposed its schedule, it no longer included early forgiveness. The idea of ​​potentially doing months of work for what appears to be free is not going well with a large group of young players, according to sources.

What else are they worried about?

Good old service time handling, of course. A tutorial: There are usually 186 days in a season. Players earn major league service every day on the league roster, and 172 days of service equals an entire year. The handling service happens when a team calls a player from the minor leagues late enough that he cannot win the full 172 days.

The March contract describes this season's service formula: (A x (186 / B)), where A is the number of days spent in the major league list and B is the number of days in the season. We know that B is 66, which means that to receive a full year of service from the major league, players must spend at least 61 of those 66 days on the active list.

In other words, teams can leave their best prospects out of the major league list for less than a week, postpone the player's free agency by one year and assign it to the exceptional circumstances of 2020. Final date: July 29 . Any player called on that date or later receives "service time".

Another concern: some participants in one-year unsecured contracts are starting to worry about unemployment. Typically, if a team interrupts a player with this agreement at the end of spring training, he receives 45 days of termination payment. Not in the operations manual, which says that players will be paid for 45 days "at the adjusted rate". And considering that teams are looking to save and save whenever possible, unloading some expensive veterans for a fraction of the expected cost is exactly how some groups of owners care about operating.


Because they say the losses will be, as Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said, "biblical". Perhaps he was talking about Ecclesiastes 5:10, which says, "He who loves money never has enough; he who loves wealth is never satisfied with his income."

In any case, the owners claim that most of the losses come from the lack of ticket sales. That's why Houston Astros owner Jim Crane said that when coronavirus cases increase in Texas, his plan … is to sell tickets to games. The only way to make up for the loss of revenue, he said, is to sell tickets, merchandise, beer – "whatever they want," said Crane.

Crane's ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time remains undefeated in 2020, although included on page 28 of the operations manual is a very simple phrase hidden in the middle of a paragraph: "Clubs can allow fans to play games with the approval of MLB and relevant local authorities. "

If the MLB goes through training camps and the players find a good rhythm in the new scenario, the notion of fans will not be entirely out of the field of possibility. It's just … well, you have over 3,500 words in it. Do you know what this is.

If the games are actually played, what will they be like?

They may not be great. The combination of aborted spring training three months away and three weeks of spring 2.0 training does not necessarily indicate good baseball.

It will look different, and not just because there is a designated hitter in the National League now and a runner will start second base on extra turns. The lack of time to stretch the initial pitchers can lead the deepest organizations to stack two starting pitchers in the same game, a strategy known as a piggyback. It is quite common in the minor leagues, where teams try to limit the entry of young pitchers. In the big leagues? That would be new.

Remember, no one knows how the pitchers will respond. Some have been playing regularly. Others did not catch a ball. Many evaluators believe that the injuries in the pitch will go off.

For hitters, soft tissue injuries are the biggest concern. Hamstrings, in particular, are finicky muscles that are often tense in the first month of the season. This may be because of the March and April weather. It could be the rise of spring training to the speed of the game.

The biggest concern, of course, are the cases of COVID-19 – and the reality that the saliva tests being administered can produce false positives, in addition to the real ones. Even if a small outbreak does not stop a season, it can ruin one in a hurry.

Can't teams in that position switch to men?

Not after August 31st. This is the deadline for this year. And remember, too, it can be difficult to find deals. Scouts have seen no prospects since March. And sending a player out in the middle of a pandemic, said a GM, "seems wrong."

So, what happens if there is an outbreak on September 1?

We hope that there are enough players in the group of 60 players to form a representative team. But let's say there is an acute situation where the two collectors on the active list and two more out of 60 men have tested positive for COVID-19.

The answer: Go to Nashville, Tennessee, where Triple-A sounds are starting their own satellite league. It doesn't look like it's going to be very fancy: 40 games between two teams of free agents from the minor league who receive $ 400 a week starting on July 23, the suspicious start date of the MLB season.

"The guys are going to get out of there," said an official. "Especially catchers and winch weapons. We will all need both, and if these are the only games played, they will be more ready to play."

Saves the most important question to the end.

I bet it's intoxicating. What's wrong with you?

Will the MLB really impose a spitting ban?

Is that the most important question?


Well. Of course they won't.

Here is the rule in the operations manual: "Spitting (including, without limitation, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells or tobacco) is prohibited at all times on the club's premises (including in the field). Chewing gum is permitted." In addition to the clear bribe perpetuated by the chewing gum lobby, the rest of the rule is more of a reminder.

The virus, he says without saying, is here, and it is what can end this season before it starts. So if players think for even a second that they probably shouldn't spit between shots … this is less potentially harmful sputum. Add tens, hundreds, thousands and maybe that will change the calculation. This, distancing and being responsible.

There are so many places where it can go wrong that if the MLB completes a season, it will not only have its protocol and behavior to be thankful for, but also a mine of luck. Baseball may be back, yes. But how long does anyone know.

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