Olney: MLB now faces its biggest challenge of 2020: playing during the pandemic

Watching Major League Baseball start a second “spring” training now, amid surging coronavirus infections in the states where many hundreds of ballplayers reside, is like climbing into a sailboat just as the outer bands of a hurricane swirl closer on the horizon.

But this is where baseball is in this moment, and if you work in the industry, you almost feel a need to avert your eyes, given the staffers and players and family members who will be at increased risk in the days ahead for the sake of a handful of games. If you are part of the army of folks assigned to make this work, there’s nothing you can do but your best, without any real precedent, training or substantive preparation on which to rely. All teams and players have been given the 100-plus pages of health and safety protocols, with color-coded charts, social-distancing workout diagrams and diagnostic questionnaires, but the material is entirely new and unfamiliar.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in the text, but there is so much more that cannot be accounted for, such as the moving virus hot spots through which each of the 2,000-plus team members could pass to unknowingly become carriers. We know from the national example that there is no real-world guidance to be given when some players and staffers don’t share the same social-distancing vigilance as their peers, even as the number of new positive cases nationwide grew from about 18,000 on June 15 to almost 45,000 reported on Saturday.

Everybody in the game naturally has fingers crossed that this could work, fingers crossed to get through the summer camp, the 60-game regular season and the postseason that could be especially lucrative for Major League Baseball. But among some at field level, there is enormous skepticism that they will all get through this, as planned, and concern that they will court tragedy along the way.

The science of infections is daunting, and the math is overwhelming. As one team official noted, the National Basketball Association will attempt a restart of its season in a bubble of containment in Orlando, Florida, attempting to wall off the coronavirus and outsiders at risk for infection. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, will try to conduct business in dozens of venues, and after their workouts, players will return to their homes and apartments and hotel rooms to loved ones who have been exposed to others outside of any theoretical bubble.

The NBA will try to do its work under one roof, with access restricted. MLB’s season will be one long wade through humanity, with roving bands of players moving from state to state, city to city, hotel to hotel under the best circumstances. At worst, players will venture outside of the safe zone — something that staffers fully expect will happen on a regular basis.

In Houston, hospitals are near or at capacity because of those infected with the coronavirus. Carlos del Rio, an epidemiologist at Atlanta’s Emory University Medical School, was asked by ESPN’s Willie Weinbaum about the return of Major League Baseball to Houston in this moment. “I think Houston should not have anything like that happen,” he said. It might require months, Dr. del Rio said, to get the COVID-19 emergency under control. “I realistically don’t think you’re going to be able to play in Houston.”

Oakland A’s reliever Jake Diekman joined the Baseball Tonight podcast Friday and discussed the reality that peer pressure will be important, that in a sense, players will have to police one another from slipping out at night to do less than social distancing. There are club officials, however, who believe that this is a high bar of conduct that is probably out of reach. The sport’s best chance is for everybody to pull in the same direction, but you’d sooner expect labor peace in baseball than for all of the polarized perspectives to merge at once. Wearing a mask is like choosing not to drink and drive — it’s about protecting not only yourself but also others whom you might put in harm’s way — but there is no unanimity about how to regard COVID-19.

At this stage, it’s impossible to point fingers of blame. Commissioner Rob Manfred is a lawyer, not a health expert. General managers are masters of player development, contract negotiations and talent valuation; none of them expected to become chief operating officer of COVID-19 management, and they are learning how to execute testing and isolation on the fly. Managers are trained in employee relations and at recognizing tiring pitchers, not in social-distancing discipline. As one agent noted, players have learned to trust the math and science of baseball analytics, but to understand and adapt to a pandemic is something way beyond their experience — or anybody’s experience.

But as Jeff Passan wrote Friday, Manfred does have the power to pull baseball off this path. In the face of the mounting numbers of infections in some states and the in-the-trenches complications of trying to get players and protocol in place, he should consider at least pausing the start of baseball’s clock in the hope of some stabilization. He needs to be ready to make the really difficult decision to call the whole thing off.

There would be no shame in that. The most powerful nation on earth has been overrun, at extraordinary cost in lives, devastating illnesses, jobs and wealth. The United States has sometimes mirrored baseball in its evolution, with the Civil Rights movement gaining momentum after the arrival of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers and in the national grief and response after 9/11 playing out at Shea Stadium and other ballparks.

But in the year of the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball seems to reflect a stalled and fractured country that is desperately searching for better days amid a fog of precariousness.

• There is a sentiment among some players that transparency about the total number of positive tests league-wide and team-to-team is incredibly important right now, as they weigh participation decisions that might affect their welfare and that of immediate family members.

To date, some teams have declined to offer precise numbers of how many players and staffers have tested positive, sometimes merely acknowledging that there have been positive tests.

Under the current circumstances, some players think teams should be ethically obligated to immediately make public exactly how many have tested positive so that the day-to-day context is crystal clear.

After weeks of suspicion and distrust in the labor negotiations, the players are concerned that all of the positive tests won’t be revealed to players first, before teams, and that this information won’t be forwarded immediately, regardless of the competitive situation.

• MLB rosters were unfrozen Friday, and teams are now allowed to make moves, but club officials believe that the deal-making will be slow at the outset, for a few reasons.

First, general managers have been consumed by logistical questions related to the return of baseball, so there haven’t been a lot of proposals kicked around.

Second, it’s just about impossible to assess and ascribe value to any player under the current circumstances. GMs don’t really know whether the 2020 season will be one game or 60 in the face of a pandemic. For example, if the Dodgers had known what was going to transpire this year, they probably would not have invested the kind of resources required to deal for Mookie Betts.

Lastly, because scouts are not allowed to attend scheduled team workouts in the second “spring” training, they aren’t really in position to evaluate whether a particular player can help their teams.

Some GMs believe that if the season plays out and confidence grows so that the sport can reach the finish line, there will be a flurry of moves leading up to the Aug. 31 trade deadline.

• With the universal designated hitter probably here to stay, it might be time for the Hall of Fame to track down Gerrit Cole’s bat from Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, when baseball might have seen the last at-bat ever by a pitcher. Cole faced Sean Doolittle in that game and struck out after grounding out in his first two plate appearances.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Oakland reliever Jake Diekman, who has had multiple surgeries related to colitis, talks about the return of baseball amid coronavirus concerns; Eireann Dolan, who is married to Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, talks about the concerns and risks; Todd Radom brings his weekly quiz and a discussion about Skydome and Exhibition Stadium.

Thursday: Marly Rivera of ESPN and Bob Nightengale of USA Today discuss the return of baseball.

Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian gives some predictions about the 2020 season, including dangerous teams and possible MVP picks.

Tuesday: David Schoenfield discusses MLB’s implementation of a 60-game season, and Paul Hembekides talks about Trevor Bauer’s tweets.

Monday: Sarah Langs talks about the Hall of Fame chances for Yadier Molina, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and Justin Verlander’s chances for 300 wins; Karl Ravech talks about the possible return of baseball.