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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Healthy back-and-forth on virus issues key first step for MLB, union

The Mets stand for the National Anthem against

The Mets stand for the National Anthem against the Washington Nationals at the Mets Home Opening game at Citi Field on April 04, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

In what we’ll cautiously label as progress, the Players Association responded Thursday to MLB’s 67-page pandemic manual. As you would expect, the union included plenty of their own notes, on a number of topics.

Dialogue is always a good thing in these situations. Lobbing PR grenades at each other is not.

But playing baseball during a pandemic, which hasn’t been tried in more than a century, is a complicated, worrisome undertaking. Despite the two sides expressing some optimism that the health and safety concerns can be navigated, there is no way of knowing if any joint plan will work.

And we haven’t even got to the money part yet.

That probably won’t happen for several more days, according to a source, which is around the time MLB is expected to finally submit their proposal for pandemic-adjusted salaries. Not the union’s favorite topic, especially since the players have considered the matter closed since March. It remains a radioactive subject.

We’ll get back to that though. First things first, and figuring out if baseball is even possible amid a COVID-19 outbreak comes with no guarantees. In fact, the only certainty is the potential danger involved, saddled with legit life-or-death consequences.

For that reason, MLB needed 67 pages to cover what it believed to be every contingency. And this was only a first draft — says so right in the margins — with some half-formed concepts still to be determined. The manual was delivered last Friday to the union, which spent most of this week scrutinizing its contents, including a 3 1/2-hour video call with 100-plus players Monday night, according to a union official.

A source said the feedback was “wide-ranging,” and included notes on the following: testing frequency, protocols for positive tests, in-stadium medical personnel, protections for high-risk players/family, access to pre/post-game therapies and sanitization protocols.

You may wonder where spitting and showering fits on that list, but think of it this way. A number of those modifications hinge on that first topic — testing frequency. MLB’s proposed plan includes regular active-virus (PCR) testing, multiple times per week, but not on a daily basis. In addition, players also would be screened upon their arrival at spring training next month.

From the Players Association standpoint, more testing — such as every day — could eliminate the need for some of the stricter guidelines. If everybody inside the ballpark already has tested negative for the day, then there shouldn’t be anything to fear from handling the baseballs or high-fiving or even spitting in a socially-responsible manner, right?

The main problem with that, however, is no test is foolproof. Some are better than others, and even a reliable saliva test like the one MLB intends to use (no brain-tickling swabs) can still register a false negative. Also, we’re talking about testing a minimum of 1,500 players, so that would come out to 10,500 tests a week — before getting to managers, coaches, trainers, operations staff, etc. MLB already is retrofitting its Utah drug lab to run COVID-19 tests instead, but that is a massive amount of resources devoted to playing an 82-game schedule.

In my initial read of MLB’s manual, another thing that stuck out to me was how they planned to shut down steam rooms, saunas and hydrotherapy pools, so it wasn’t surprising to see that listed on the union’s counterproposal. These are not leisure items. They can be a very integral part of a player’s maintenance regimen, basically to survive the daily grind of baseball’s relentless schedule.

These seem to be reasonable talking points. And on the surface, negotiable. But neither side truly knows how much wiggle room there actually is in these areas. Both MLB and the union have consulted their own health experts in trying to devise the best possible path forward and it’s still only a highly-educated guess. They have to calculate the risk and then determine if this truly is possible.

For now, they still believe baseball can do this, despite the difficulty. We’ll see if they stick to that once the money comes up in a few days. Despite the previous acrimony, there’s really no leverage to be gained anymore by fighting over the language of the March 26 pact. If baseball can be played in a responsibly safe manner — which is what they’re hashing out now — then the two sides have to agree on the financial parameters to do so.

Battling the coronavirus is something everyone can rally around. Fighting each other isn’t going to fly with the fate of this season hanging in the balance.  

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