As Summer Camp continues with nine days left until the first games of the MLB season teams are adding umpires to call their intra-squad games and give them a bit more realistic feel. Players probably welcome this compared to catchers calling the zone. After all, Bruce Levine was pretty clear on Marquee Sports Network’s podcast today that Willson Contreras had a pretty generous zone the hitters weren’t particularly fond of.
But as I discussed in yesterday’s diary entry, every time teams introduce a new person or team to their bubble they are introducing a new risk. It doesn’t matter how great the Cubs commitment to their protocol is if someone from the outside comes in with different standards. Someone like, say, Joe West, who apparently called the Tampa Bay Rays practice game without a mask on yesterday.
Umpire Mark Wegner working home plate today at #Rays sim game and, unlike Joe West yesterday, he is wearing a mask— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) July 14, 2020
There are more than a few problematic elements of umpires just wearing masks whenever they feel like it, but I’ll start with my most obvious concern. The home plate umpire is probably the one person who is not part of either team that has the potential to infect every single player on the field. All it takes is one person who doesn’t take the virus seriously enough for an entire squad to be exposed, and we all already know what Joe West thinks about taking COVID-19 seriously, despite the fact that he lives in the Tampa Bay area amidst one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
I cannot think of any good reason for umpires to not wear masks on the field. I mean, even Little League recommends this:
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
All managers/coaches, volunteers, umpires, etc., should wear PPE whenever applicable and possible, such as cloth face coverings.
It’s not like a cloth covering over the mouth and nose impacts an umpire’s ability to call the game correctly in any way shape or form. Plate umpires already wear a protective mask that would impact their view substantially more than a small cloth covering, so any arguments about visibility or comfort seem disingenuous at best.
I know that masks are something a lot of Americans aren’t used to yet. I’ll be the first to admit it’s a bit uncomfortable to be masked up in 90 degree heat walking down the street. But we already ask umpires to wear a ton of gear that isn’t particularly comfortable on a hot summer day. I don’t understand why a mask that keeps every player on both teams safer can’t be added to the equipment list.
Additionally, as more players demonstrate that they are capable playing their positions or hitting with a mask on, I just find it hard to believe an umpire who comes in contact with every player in the game cannot wear one. As Yu Darvish told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune yesterday:
“When I came here, I made sure everyone was doing the right thing,” he said. “I had in my mind if they were not, I was ready to go home.”
Darvish’s concerns were noticeable from the first workout, when he wore a face mask that he continued to wear the next night, when he wasn’t pitching in an intrasquad game.
“I know some of the players aren’t comfortable wearing it, but they do,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I’m used to wearing this all the time, so I’m very comfortable about this.”
The Cubs have had one of the strictest protocols regarding COVID-19 in the league. They’ve delayed practice twice due to testing issues and had key personnel, including manager David Ross, stay away from the park when their tests weren’t back yesterday. None of that matters if an umpire enters the Cubs bubble after being careless and calls a game at home plate without a mask. Players such as Darvish and former MVP Kris Bryant have already expressed reservations about the risk of playing baseball in a pandemic, it would seem like MLB should ask all personnel to do as much as they can to ensure the safety and health of players and their families.
It isn’t just players who have health and safety concerns, umpires should also be thinking of their colleagues. Jon Heyman reported today that 11 umpires have already opted out of the 2020 season:
Sources: 11 Major League umpires have opted out or decided not to participate. Some are said to have family members who are ill.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 14, 2020
It’s unclear how many of those umpires have opted out due to personal or family health concerns. Sports Illustrated reported that comes to approximately 15 percent of the current crew of umpires. ESPN’s Jesse Rogers covered the terms that allow umpires to opt out in this piece published at the end of June. That piece also indicates that face coverings are “encouraged, but not required.” Given what we currently know about outbreaks in some parts of the country, MLB would do well to reevaluate those requirements, particularly for umpires who call balls and strikes. It may lead to some uncomfortable conversations with the MLBUA, but that is a small price to pay considering the cost of a COVID-19 outbreak that is traced back to an umpire without a mask could be an existential threat to the whole season.
It just honestly isn’t complicated. Cubs mental skills coach John Baker called some of the Cubs earlier practices this week and he summed this issue up better than I possibly can: