Theoretically we are 10 days away from the first baseball games in 2020, but as much as I’d love to write about pennant races, trade deadlines and pitching match-ups, I have an uneasy feeling about the start of the 2020 baseball season. It isn’t just the absolute surge of cases that is currently ravaging the Sun Belt, although these charts from the New York Times showing cases continuing to skyrocket in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida are terrifying:
It’s something Kris Bryant said last week that I can’t stop thinking about: “This is the easy part.”
Right now every team is playing in a bit of a bubble. I’ll talk more about the quality of those bubbles in a second, but theoretically once you’ve established a limited number of people, protocol for them to stay safe and testing to ensure that hasn’t changed, those bubbles are about as secure as one could hope to be in the current environment while interacting with other people.
The problem is two-fold. First, it seems like not all team bubbles have been created equally. For example, last week the Cubs delayed practice for all players because of testing delays, today they had six key Tier-1 individuals, including manager David Ross, stay home because their tests were delayed. However, practice continued for the rest of the team. That seems like a pretty solid plan to me, and I appreciate the transparency the Cubs have had around these announcements. In fact, I think that transparency is vital to a safe season being possible:
Cubs announce that David Ross and five other Tier 1 individuals are waiting for their results from Saturday’s COVID-19 tests and will not attend workouts this morning “out of an abundance of caution.” pic.twitter.com/Dj2r6qWWmK— Maddie Lee (@maddie_m_lee) July 13, 2020
Compare and contrast that transparency with what we heard from the Cardinals last week when they cancelled one practice and delayed another:
To be clear, this isn’t a Cubs vs. Cardinals thing — but the different approaches matter because the reason for the delay is important. What is the percentage of tests that cancels rather than delays a practice? Why was that decision made? I do want to give the Cardinals props here for exercising caution and not putting people together without testing data. That is a far cry from the Angels who still just absolutely stunned me with this whole “optional practice” decision as the Los Angeles Times reported last week:
The Angels pushed Monday’s practice from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then switched it to an optional workout for 12 to 15 players after sample collectors did not show up to Angel Stadium or Blair Field — their alternate training site in Long Beach — on Sunday.
The Angels administered their own saliva tests Sunday and shipped them to Major League Baseball’s testing lab in Salt Lake City. They conducted Sunday’s workouts as scheduled, but Monday’s workouts were delayed to give medical personnel a wider window to administer tests.
Which brings me to my second point, because in 10 days when these team bubbles start interacting with other team bubbles they are only as safe as the weakest link on the field. That means if the Angels are holding optional practice without test results, every team that interacts with the Angels might as well have done the same thing. It also makes individual behavior and skepticism of the virus a huge risk for any other player they interact with, so when Joe West doesn’t take the coronavirus seriously and umpires four different teams in a week, all four of those rosters assume West’s level of risk.
This is a massive collective action problem, because if everyone would just agree on the most stringent rules and transparency it would be better for the entire sport, but that level of compliance seems unlikely within the structure MLB set up. That means the Astros and Nationals are cancelling practice while the Angels and Yankees are testing themselves. The second those teams play each other, the system is weakened to the lower risk threshold some teams adopted.
For what it’s worth, MLB has set standards that are minimum requirements, as The Athletic reported below:
• The individual must test negative for the virus via an expedited test, and self-quarantine while awaiting the results of that test.
• The individual must be completely asymptomatic.
• The individual must undergo more frequent temperature checks and enhanced symptom monitoring under the direction of the club’s medical staff for at least ten days following the potential exposure.
• The individual must wear a surgical mask at all times, including while outside of Club facilities, except while on the field.
• The individual must undergo a saliva test on a daily basis for seven days following the potential exposure (clubs are provided with saliva tests.
• The individual must immediately self-isolate under the direction of the team physician if he or she develops any symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
Ideally, the only deviation from those standards would be players and staff following more stringent standards from their particular state or locality. To their credit players seem keenly aware that this entire structure depends on everyone taking the strongest precautions, as this NPR interview with the Mariners’ Braden Bishop shows:
Seattle Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop echoed that sentiment in an interview with Goldman, saying that team members are trying to police each other’s behavior.
“I think the biggest problem is you could put in the greatest protocols ever, but if you don’t have full compliance by every single guy and every single employee, it puts everyone at risk,” Bishop said. “You don’t want one of those serious cases [of COVID-19] to be part of our group.”
The Cubs Yu Darvish put it even more simply:
Yu Darvish was "ready to go home" if the Cubs didn’t get it right at Wrigley Field: https://t.co/w9Aoc66SZA— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) July 13, 2020
However, as I look outside my window on the type of day built for baseball in Wrigleyville, I cannot help but see dozens of individuals with clearly different thresholds for risk in the current environment. Some are wearing masks, even walking alone with no one around, some are not, some are riding bikes with masks on, many are not, and some are entering gyms and restaurants, an action I haven’t even considered in four months.
At the end of the day MLB is filled with players and staff with their own personal assessments of risk. If baseball is going to be played safely, all of those individuals are going to have to agree to follow the most stringent rules regardless of their individual preference for the next 90 days. In other words, baseball players, coaches and essential staff are basically going to have to accomplish something no group of Americans has seemed willing to do so far during the pandemic.