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If MLB was really concerned about public safety, it wouldn’t play baseball in 2020

2020-07-25

Reopening sports through a raging pandemic — let alone one accelerated by close contact, shared spaces, breathing, and all kinds of functions sports would prefer to keep around, is absurd.

But baseball, if nothing else, is the most socially distant of the major American sports leagues, and so the hope remains that 60 games and a full postseason can be salvaged with enough lungs intact for 2021. However, the 2020 MLB season — both in its internal logistics and moral foundation — relies on two straightforward questions: Can MLB keep its players safe? Can players be kept safe without harming the safety of others?

Those questions, unfortunately, are premised on the league possessing occasional integrity, intellectual honesty, and most of all, a capacity for shame on the selfishness of its health plans. Were any of those true, the 2020 season would still be on hiatus.

The obstacles are well documented and issues with the pandemic continue to mount, on and off the diamond. League protocols are lax in the most vital areas and overbearing everywhere else. Kids only need to graze a stovetop once to learn that fire is hot. Three and a half million Americans have been burned so far. Over 138,000 people died, and the fire is still spreading.

Why is baseball still poking the burner?

Stadiums can serve many purposes: Fancy playgrounds for bankers and attorneys trying to impress a client, heavy drains on tax revenue, and a place to yell something racist at an outfielder on an opposing team. But they are not sterile biospheres, no matter how many times you spray hand sanitizer on a baseball.

Yankee Stadium might be a state-of-the-art ballpark, but as Aroldis Chapman’s positive COVID-19 test should teach us, it’s not a bubble. The Braves took Freddie Freeman and the rest of his team’s considerable talents to wealthy Cobb County, escaping the city but not the disease overwhelming the state. Freeman, one of four players that tested positive, returned to Truist Park on Friday — but not after his wife Chelsea said that “the virus hit him like a ton of bricks.” Freeman himself said he prayed “Please don’t take me” while he battled a 104-degree fever. Fortunately for MLB, God spared the star slugger’s life.

Freeman, Chapman and others tested positive after the league’s intake testing, meaning they likely got sick after MLB restarted spring training, and were present among teammates and staffers.

Who could have seen this coming, besides, of course, the people who saw this coming?

Back when the protocol was still being drafted and negotiated with the union, Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, the City of Milwaukee’s commissioner of health, shared her concern about the league’s plans for frequent, but, critically, not daily testing schedule with the Daily News in May. “Testing, once a week, or even a couple of times a week may not be sufficient,” Kowalik said at the time.

The testing plan didn’t improve substantially, going from an undefined schedule — a News source said the initial plan was three times per week — to every other day.

Practice is every day but tests are not. Results are supposed to take 24 hours thanks to SMRTL, MLB’s Salt Lake City anti-doping lab, which it outfitted to handle the tens of thousands of COVID tests it anticipates processing every week. But designing a season with those gaps presents daily opportunities for baseball’s bubble to pop.

The league and its teams could have acknowledged their setup’s limitations and vulnerabilities and perhaps received local or state regulations as a blessing intended for their protection instead of a handicap towards a division title. Instead, teams have petitioned their local health departments to bend the rules you and I need to follow in their favor, unintentionally revealing that surviving the pennant race comes first.

We saw this right here, when the Yankees and Mets secured an exemption from Andrew Cuomo’s mandatory 14-day quarantine on domestic travelers entering New York from pandemic hot spots, including both team’s spring training home in Florida.

“The Yankees and Mets have been in touch with Gov. Cuomo’s office,” the teams said in a joint statement praising the state’s workaround. “Our two teams, as well as the State Health Commissioner, will work under MLB’s protocols and guidelines,” they continued, before thanking Cuomo.

Neither the Yankees or Mets responded to the News’ list of questions regarding the exemption when the statement was initially released in June. But, the state health department insisted that sports guidelines were done in the interest of public health and in frequent communication with both teams.

“The protocols in place, which were agreed upon prior to the current travel advisory and are more restrictive, take rigorous steps to ensure safety,” one state DOH spokesperson told the News.

Regardless of the state DOH’s position on their exemption, whenever the Yankees and Mets travel from road games in Atlanta, Miami, Tampa or any other COVID-19 hotspots that emerge, they are playing by a different set of rules than the general public.

Other teams attempted to customize their public health restrictions to varying degrees of success.

The Blue Jays, MLB’s lone Canadian club, had been haggling with their government on letting the team and their opponents play from the Rogers center, even though it would require crossing a border that’s been closed to non-essential travel since March. Canada made the honourable decision and denied the Jays request for a North American hall pass, reasoning that “MLB regular-season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety.”

The Jays only option is pivoting home games in a foreign jurisdiction willing to bend the rules for baseball, whether it’s their Triple-A site in Buffalo, or spring facility in Florida, where multiple Jays caught the virus while ramping up for baseball in the eye of the storm.

Last week, both the Dodgers and Nationals reportedly asked their respective local health departments to skirt 14-day quarantine minimums for individuals exposed to the virus. The Nationals coaxed a last-minute tweak to their quarantine — exposed players and coaches can leave their homes to visit the ballpark — but not without D.C. Health acknowledging this poses a potential risk to its workforce in a strongly worded letter to the team.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged the transparent motive behind a Get Out of Quarantine Free card.

“Obviously, we talk about competitive advantage when our guys might be out a little bit longer than another team’s players,” said Roberts. Though the Dodgers manager claimed “the most important thing is the health of the players,” he also said his team would “make do regardless of what we’re up against.”

Chrissie Juliano, director of the Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC), took issue with Roberts positioning public safety against a baseball team’s competitive interests.

“Suggesting that LA County health officials’ work to keep their community as healthy and safe as possible puts the Dodgers at a ‘competitive disadvantage’ is absurd,” wrote Juliano in a text to the News.

“We should all have our eye on the ball” on stopping the spread of the raging pandemic by “not placing blame on [health officials] for simply doing their jobs” and “following guidelines put forth by health officials at the local or state level.”

The BCHC followed up Juliano’s comments with a list of reopening guidelines on Wednesday, urging people to submit to everyone else’s rules, including “the same [14-day] quarantine and isolation standards” instead of prying loopholes at the expense of public health.

Or at the very least, keep it a buck about what you’re risking — and really, who you’re risking — to keep the game going.

“If ‘modified quarantine’ arrangements are made to allow players or staff to be at their place of work [i.e. a stadium], this increases the risk of exposure to others. Organizations that implement modified quarantines must acknowledge the risk they are accepting on behalf of their employees.”

MLB did not respond when asked if strict public health requirements posed a competitive disadvantage, or if reducing quarantine time increased health risks.

Even if the league’s attempt to quarantine on its own terms were nil, expediting a player’s return to the field requires determining they are sick and validating if they have recovered. Either measure means 1) immediate access to testing 2) timely processing of the results. In MLB, that means at least two negative test results after exposure or infection before returning to the field.

In Arizona, Phoenix has COVID-19 drive-through line stretching three miles long. One can imagine that queue being a few Ford Broncos short of stretching all the way to Chase Field, where Diamondbacks players and coaches get tested at least three times a week — and, on occasion, receive extra tests from local labs. A University of Arizona student reported waiting 26 days for his COVID-19 results.

In Florida, where Orange County health officer Raul Pino stressed “anything that takes more than 48 hours [to process is too long],” when preventing community spread, lab results are routinely delivered more than a week after testing.

Even here, where we flattened our curve for an unacceptable price only to have our collective grief converted into gloating poster art — New Yorkers report similar wait times as federal officials urge local labs to prioritize tests from hotspots.

When the league falls short — as it did during a Fourth of July weekend where the league appeared to miscalculate that its mail carriers and tests were on vacation — teams were forced to decide between canceling practice or psyching themselves into playing through it.

For MLB, the major league luxury of waiting three days instead of two was a minor scandal. And the league is seeking out additional labs to reduce wait times.

When the league doesn’t cut the line, it cuts corners. MLB’s protocol defined “Tier 3 employees” aren’t included in its testing plan, and as such, ballpark security, player transportation, even staffers tasked with screening other Tier-3 workers for symptoms as they arrive for work aren’t themselves tested for coronavirus.

You can safely assume that even before the pandemic, the typical Tier-3 worker’s lifestyle was socially distant from their starry coworkers. But to keep players safe and the metaphor strong, those workers are also forbidden from making contact with players.

However, the league will on occasion, make a sharp pivot to populism at the expense of its players.

One of two MLB-chartered flight shuttling Dominican players and staff to the United States — itself an example of the league receiving an exemption from a border closing positioned as a safety measure — became a coronavirus petri dish, with multiple players testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the States, including Twins slugger Miguel Sano.

Notably, none of the 160 people on either flight were tested before boarding the flight, because, from MLB’s perspective, testing those Dominican players would — wait for it — take away valuable resources from Dominican people. Where have I heard that before?

“Testing 160 asymptomatic players in the Dominican Republic would have diverted substantial resources away from the Dominican health care system, where the availability of laboratory equipment is scarce,” said a league spokesperson in a statement describing a situation strictly relevant to the DR and impossible to identify anywhere else in the world.

If MLB couldn’t rush hundreds of foreign players back without compromising their health or their homeland, maybe that’s a sign it shouldn’t ... nevermind.

As Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University explained to the News, siphoning tests for a select group of baseball personnel, and then doing that selectively, is, at very best, a bad look.

“This isn’t just an issue of optics — it is, at some point, an issue of humanity and morality, even in sports. You do have to wake up every morning and look yourself in the mirror and go, ‘Am I making the world a worse place? Could I make it better?’” said Binney.

Binney stressed he wasn’t making a value judgment on behalf of baseball. All good! I’ll do it for him:

MLB shouldn’t play.

The only thing more insulting than the notion of a 2020 season is the constant reassertion of its viability. But if MLB improved its commitment to safety — for players, fans at home, and the many more Americans indifferent to whether the home team wins the big game — and the rules intended for safety were followed and not diluted, there would be no baseball at all.