Baseball’s new rules: No spitting, no arguing and lots of testing
By James Wagner
Coronavirus testing every other day for players and coaches. Wet rags for pitchers’ pockets to prevent them from licking their fingers. Masks in the du- gout and bullpen for any non-players. And no public transportation to the stadium, communal food spreads, saunas, fighting, spitting, smokeless tobacco or sunflower seeds. Got all that?
These are among the many new rules that Major League Baseball teams will have to follow for the shortened 2020 season. This week, after months of haggling over pay and how many games to play, MLB and the players’ union finalized their sea- son plan, including a 113-page operations manual that will govern this unprecedented 60-game season without fans in the stands. “There’s a lot of stuff to get used to,” New York Mets pitcher Seth Lugo said.
Unlike some other pro leagues that will play in a single, sequestered environment, MLB will play games at teams’ home sta- diums, with the regular season beginning either July 23 or 24 after a second round of spring training starting July 1.
Even before any players have officially reported to their camps, several teams — including the Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees — have reportedly had positive coronavirus tests among their players and staff members.
“This is a challenging time, but we will meet the challenge by continuing to work together,” read part of the introduction to the MLB manual, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “Ad- herence to the health and safety protocols described in this manual will increase our likelihood of being successful.”
Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disea- ses expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, commended baseball’s health and safety plan, calling it “fairly detailed” in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“A player’s risk, based on what they’re planning, is probably greater for acquiring this infection in the community than whi- le engaged in baseball-related activities,” Saag said.
A four-person committee, which inclu- des doctors appointed by the league and the players’ union, will oversee the imple- mentation of the plan. Each team must designate an individual to serve as a corona- virus point person who ensures compliance with the rules.
To facilitate testing, the Sports Medici- ne Research and Testing Laboratory, which normally helps run the league’s anti-doping testing, has converted a portion of its facili- ty in Salt Lake City for virus tests, promising a 24-hour turnaround on results.
The manual designates the different tiers of people: Tier 1 consists of players and on-field personnel, like coaches and umpires; Tier 2 is other essential personnel, like members of the front office or strength and conditioning staff; Tier 3 is other ne- cessary workers, like cleaning crews, who do not come in contact with players and coaches.
Before spring training begins, players and key staff must be screened for any symptoms and potential exposure to the vi- rus, as well as a separate examination that includes a saliva or oral/nasal swab test and a blood sample for an antibody test.
During spring training and the season, players and select staff will have their tem- peratures and symptoms checked twice per day at club facilities. They will also be given oral digital thermometers for self-screening each morning. Those with temperatures at or above 100.4 degrees will not be allowed to enter a team facility.
Players and on-field personnel will be tested for the virus every other day, while other key staff will be tested “multiple times per week.” Antibody testing will happen about once a month.
If anyone tests positive for the virus, they will receive medical attention and be required to self-isolate. Contact tracing will be conducted and the team facility will be disinfected.
Teams’ medical staffs must identify pla- yers and key staff members who are at hig- her risk of contracting the virus — becau- se of age or medical history, for example — or who live with someone who is at a higher risk. Those individuals could receive special treatment, including separate travel arrangements.
If a higher-risk player still wants to opt out of playing this season after consulting with the team doctor, he would be placed on the “COVID-19 Related Injured List” and would still receive service time and pay. The COVID-19 list will have no time limits and will also be open to players who test positive for the virus, were exposed to a confirmed case or exhibit symptoms.
The manual includes 11 pages of dia- grams to ensure social distancing during on-field drills and in dugouts, batting cages and bullpens. Among the other measures in the manual:
— Players should keep at least 6 feet away from one another in the clubhouse, and additional clubhouse space should be provided if needed
— Players are “discouraged but not prohibited” from showering in the clubhou- se
— Inactive players are asked to sit 6 feet apart in the stands
— Clubhouse food must be served in individual to-go containers
— Players (or managers) who leave their positions to argue with umpires or come within 6 feet of them or an opposing player or manager face ejection and disci- pline
— Any ball in play or touched by mul- tiple players will be replaced
— The traveling party will have a priva- te check-in and entrance at hotels to avoid interactions with the public
— Members of the traveling team are “not permitted to leave the hotel to eat or otherwise use any restaurants (in the hotel or otherwise) open to the public.” They must be provided with a private dining room at the hotel, and they can use room service or food delivery services. — Hotel room visits are permitted for only other members of a traveling party or immediate family.
Given the stakes, some players have said they must police themselves away from the field to prevent the type of virus outbreaks that have occurred in women’s professional soccer or college football be- cause of visits to bars or nightclubs.
Lugo said Wednesday afternoon that he had only read a three-page summary of the MLB manual that had been provided by his agents. But given the complexities of the protocols and the virus, Lugo, who lives in Louisiana, said he expected to learn more when he arrived in New York this week. According to the manual, players and em- ployees will undergo mandatory training about the virus throughout the year.
“A lot of it is pretty much common sen- se,” Lugo said of the rules. “Just don’t touch anybody.”