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MLB's return will need to be by the book if baseball is going to return this summer

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 8, 2019. Credit: AP/John Raoux

Now that Major League Baseball has its COVID-19 playbook down on paper, we can see that the 67-page manual appears to cover all the bases in meticulously worded detail.

It’s got everything most of us wondered about, and plenty that we hadn’t even thought of. Such as banning mascots. Is there a more effective PPE than Mr. Met’s giant baseball head?

But that massive undertaking was merely Step 1. Not only does the Players Association have to sign off on these unprecedented guidelines, but everyone will have to adhere to them if baseball is going to happen this summer.

And not just occasionally. Every day. For up to six months.

We’re talking about roughly 3,000 people, only half of them players, plus managers, coaches, trainers, doctors, front-office personnel, game-operations staff, bus drivers, flight attendants. One costly deviation from the protocols at any of those levels could blow up the entire season. It could easily be an accident, or just an innocent mistake, a mental slip-up.

The Korean Baseball Organization has played for almost two weeks now without any problems by following its own 44-page handbook, which MLB borrowed from. One of the similarities is outlawing high-fives. But on the first day back to spring training, the Samsung Lions immediately broke the rule. Not maliciously. Just habit.

“They momentarily forgot,” said Daniel Kim, a KBO insider and Seoul-based contributor to ESPN. “Players are used to spitting all the time, so that was the hardest part, not surprisingly.”

Point is, these leagues can instruct their employees what needs to be done, along with what should be discouraged, but the execution of these guidelines is the X factor here. Players already are accustomed to regular drug testing for PEDs, so adding COVID-19 screening multiple times a week is something they probably can handle.

Just being around the ballpark and in the clubhouse is going to take big adjustments. Players live a communal life, in close quarters — working out, practicing, eating, watching video, hitting, more hitting, even more hitting. The fact that indoor cages are essentially off-limits will be difficult for many of them. Just remembering to stay six feet apart at all times won’t be easy.

And like those Samsung Lions, there definitely will be slip-ups when it comes to player interaction. They’ve been celebrating with teammates since Little League. High-fiving or fist-bumping comes naturally in these settings, almost like breathing. Dropping it altogether will require some reprogramming.

The higher-risk activities, however, are more likely to take place outside of the ballpark. MLB’s manual allows for players to stay at their own accommodations for spring training and home games, as usual, but pushes for a semi-quarantined existence on the road at the team hotel. No public restaurants. Only immediate family members permitted in rooms.

In addition, MLB stresses the critical nature of non-baseball behavior in its chapter on medical and testing protocols. And really, the success of the manual’s other 66 pages is contingent on everyone staying in line with subset 2.6, which sums it up by saying: “The careless actions of a single member of the team places the entire team (and their families) at risk, and teams should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to the team.”

MLB also points out that activities away from the team’s facilities will not be “formally” restricted, but players and employees “must exercise care . . . to avoid situations in which the risk of contacting the virus is elevated,” such as crowded restaurants, bars and clubs.

That’s the potential weak link in MLB’s ambitious return-to-play blueprint: the questionable decision-making process of any individual, which basically applies to everyone during this pandemic. In South Korea last week, a 29-year-old Patient Zero infected as many as 79 people during one bar-hopping excursion in a country that had reduced its daily new cases to single-digits. No matter how many rules you have or what safeguards are suggested, they still need to be followed for a plan to work.

“It’s hard to control people’s behavior,” said Dr. Bernard Camins, the Medical Director for Infection Prevention at Mount Sinai, in a conversation last week. “A lot of baseball players are young, relatively young, and will they really follow all the social-distancing guidelines? We’re seeing young people breaking those guidelines now. I’m not saying that will happen, but it can be very difficult, right, if [COVID-19] hasn’t hit them or their family personally.”

What MLB is trying to do is prevent the coronavirus from delivering a knockout blow to its return-to-play strategy. And now we know the level of difficulty. It’s well-documented in those 67 pages.

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