Maybe they can’t see it through all the bickering. Or maybe they don’t hear it over the high-pitched rhetoric. But while Major League Baseball and the Players Association duke it out over money, it sure seems as though there’s a darker, more sinister force that could further complicate the start of the 2020 season.
Have you noticed the spike in COVID-19 cases in Arizona? And Texas? And Florida?
Between them, those three states are home to five major-league teams, with all 30 spring-training sites located in Arizona and Florida. They also combined for an average of 1,310 new coronavirus cases per day in June through Friday after averaging 932 in May, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
“What basically happened is that COVID took off in certain regions earlier than others in the United States,” said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “All the places that got slammed early on — Boston; New York City, obviously; Philadelphia, to some extent — had events that took place in February or March and seeded the communities with large numbers of cases. That was not the case in most of the southwest, in Texas, in most of Florida. As a result, I think what we’re seeing now is just that they’re later to the pandemic.”
It’s notable, then, that MLB’s most-recent economic proposals guarantee the players a lower percentage of their prorated salaries and withhold an additional percentage until the postseason. The plan that was effectively rejected Saturday in a statement released by Players Association executive director Tony Clark called for players to receive 70% of their full pro-rata, but more than 80% if the World Series is completed.
Never mind that the players won’t ever go for a proposal that reopens the March agreement on salaries prorated based on the length of the season. The majority of the national TV money comes during the playoffs, and MLB is clearly afraid that the season might have to be preempted by a second wave of the virus.
But what’s going on in Arizona, Texas and Florida isn’t that, according to Sax. Those states and others are experiencing what the hardest-hit cities and states faced in the earlier stages of the outbreak in the United States.
“It’s not a second wave of infections,” Sax said. “It’s basically the same wave of infection that is hitting them later and partially because they loosened up their societal controls much more than we have. They might have felt that it was being overblown in cities like ours. It was not overblown.”
Last month, MLB presented the players with a 67-page first draft of health and safety protocols for opening the season in the midst of an active pandemic. Some measures are common sense (no spitting, no high-fives, etc.). Others seem more austere. To wit: Saunas and hot tubs are prohibited and players are discouraged from showering at the ballpark.
Sax, an avid baseball fan, is privy only to aspects of the 67-page manual that have been made public through media reports. But based on those details, he believes MLB could safely pull off a season.
For one thing, the nature of the game promotes social distancing most of the time. For another, games are played outdoors, where the virus tends to be far less transmissible.
The bigger challenge would seem to be keeping players safe in the closer confines of the clubhouse, team buses and planes, and hotels. For that reason, MLB intends to have mostly regional travel and strict health protocols for road teams.
“Those are all things that can be partially controlled but not completely controlled,” Sax said. “The key there is to avoid crowding, to have good ventilation wherever possible, and probably a regular series of tests for the players and personnel.”
MLB’s plan outlined a diagnostic schedule that specified only “multiple” fluid swabs per week through the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, which conducts baseball’s drug testing.
“Presumably, they’re going to be taking people only who have no infection, bring them into these controlled environments, and aside from what they do at home, there’s really not much risk,” Sax said. “There’s probably some safe frequency of testing that isn’t necessarily daily.”
But the New York Post reported this weekend that an unnamed pitching coach and one 40-man roster player have tested positive for COVID-19 during MLB’s hiatus.
By tying player pay to the postseason, MLB also would seemingly incentivize players to be extra cautious about their behavior away from the ballpark. But if new coronavirus hot spots are popping up in MLB cities and training sites, the situation might be out of the players’ and teams’ control.
The spike has been particularly pronounced in Arizona, which went from 396 new cases per day in May to 1,081 in June through Friday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
"If they're facing a limited capacity situation with their hospitals, then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to send hundreds of people out to Arizona for spring training," Sax said. "Now that the weather is nice, why not have their training in the towns that they're going to play in?"
The Phillies are planning to do exactly that, holding Spring Training 2.0 at Citizens Bank Park and at their youth academy in nearby FDR Park. But some other clubs have reportedly discussed returning to Florida and Arizona.
All along, it was going to be the virus that determined when baseball would return. That hasn’t changed, even as the owners and players engage in a bitter, ugly feud over salaries.
“It would be irresponsible to say you’re going to have 100% control over these professionals who are basically doing this for their career and to try to provide as safe an environment as possible for them,” Sax said. “I do think you can make it as safe for them as possible without them being in a bubble.”