Coronavirus Concerns Reach the Majors

Like a fast-moving prospect, the novel coronavirus — or rather, concerns about what precautions to take in order to protect players amid the epidemic caused by its spread — has reached the majors. No games have been canceled yet, but on Monday, after a conference call with all 30 team owners, Major League Baseball announced its plans to join forces with the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer in limiting media access to players due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak. As of Tuesday, locker rooms and clubhouses have been temporarily closed to news media and any non-essential personnel, with media access to uniformed personnel shifted to designated locations, and barriers have been put in place to enforce a minimum distance of six feet between reporter and subject.

Admittedly, this is hardly the biggest sacrifice to be made at a time when schools and other institutions are being closed, and people are getting sick or even dying amid an epidemic that has infected over 113,000 people in 110 countries and appears to be rapidly advancing in the US, with 647 confirmed cases and 25 deaths spread across 35 states as of Tuesday afternoon (the estimated total number of people infected in the US may be an order of magnitude higher, but a shortage of tests is slowing the pace of confirmations). Yet it’s a move that should hit home to anybody reading this, not only because the quality of the coverage will suffer but because the decision highlights the tension between for-profit leagues and public health concerns. It also raises questions about the steps that the league has not yet taken and what could happen if even more drastic measures are required.

Outside of the US, COVID-19 has already made its impact felt in the world of sports, as events in soccer, cycling, European Tour golf, rugby, Formula One racing, women’s hockey, World Cup Alpine skiing, and more have either been canceled or closed to the public. The wave has now reached the US, with the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament and the Ivy League men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments both canceled while NCAA Division III basketball games are being held in empty arenas.

As far as baseball goes, two weeks ago in Japan, Nippon Professional Baseball decided to play the remainder of its preseason games in empty stadiums, and on Monday, the league announced that it will delay the start of its season, originally scheduled for March 20, for both its Central and Pacific Leagues. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the Korean Baseball Organization canceled all of its preseason games, and on Tuesday announced that the opening of its regular season, scheduled to begin on March 28, would be delayed indefinitely as well.

Thus far, MLB has no plans to curtail spring training, delay the start of the regular season (which begins on March 26), play games without fans present, or move them to venues where the outbreak is less of a concern. Such contingencies are being considered, however, and league officials plan to remain in contact with local and national health authorities to determine whether more extreme precautions should be taken. After establishing an internal task force, some initial measures by the league have already been communicated to the 30 clubs, advising team medical personnel to ensure that players’ vaccinations, including the 2019-20 flu, are up to date, that protocols to properly disinfect the clubhouse and training room are put in place, and so on. In one measure that has already been felt during spring training, the task force advised teams to distribute pre-signed player autographs on baseballs and cards instead of handling items back and forth with fans.

On Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred spoken to the 30 teams for the first time about their contingency plans. After consulting with experts in public health and infectious diseases, the league signed on to a joint statement in conjunction with the other major sports:

As the photo from the Wagner tweet above illustrates, MLB is asking players and reporters to observe the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of maintaining a six-foot distance during interviews. The word “temporary” is an important one in the joint statement, as many members of the media and their outlets fear that such a move could be used as a first step in restricting access on a more permanent basis. Reporters in other sports might be more cavalier about such access, and it’s already an uncomfortable facet of postseason baseball that leads to more homogenized coverage, but it’s the foundation of daily baseball reporting throughout the regular season. Genuine insights are far more likely to come via one-on-one conversations between a player and a skilled reporter whom has earned his trust than they are when that same player faces a swarm of raised hands in a press conference.

As the New York Post’s Joel Sherman put it:

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy offered a more detailed explanation:

Let me stop here to once again scratch my head at the number of fans who hunger for information about their favorite players/teams while routinely harpooning and mocking those who actually provide such content, a/k/a the beat reporters. It is the beat reporters who spend thousands of hours cultivating sources, panning for nuggets in big league locker rooms across America. It is not fun. It is exhausting, often demeaning, and frequently fruitless. But without that work, there would be little fuel for fans and professional bloviators.

And that work, my friends, cannot be done in overcrowded, sanitized “mixed zones,” or Pentagonesque briefing sessions designed to promote the message of the teams without uncomfortable disclosures. Simply stated, your sports reporters need access to “the room” to develop trust, to talk to players one-on-one, to find out what is really going on. This is rarely done in the “mixed zone.”

To its credit, MLB — which already has the best access of the aforementioned leagues — appears to recognize the sensitivity of the media concerns, which it addressed in a separate statement that reads in part, “Access for and coverage by the BBWAA and all media are vital to our game and we hope to resume normal operations as quickly as possible. We appreciate the media’s cooperation with this temporary step, which is being taken out of an abundance of caution for the best interests of all.”

While some players will certainly welcome the additional distance produced by this temporary setup, others realize that they have much to lose. Reds first baseman Joey Votto provided The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans a thoughtful answer on this topic:

The BBWAA (of which this scribe is a member) responded to MLB’s statements with one of its own, expressing disappointment at the closures, even as a temporary step:

Right now, this boils down to a series of inconveniences within a sector of the entertainment industry, albeit one whose revenues have exceeded $10 billion in each of the past two years and whose activities have a ripple effect throughout other sectors of the economy. Again, such measures are hardly the most crucial issue amid this outbreak, but they do represent a significant hindrance for hundreds of players and media members simply trying to do the best jobs that they can. And below the surface of what’s been said by the league are bigger concerns that have yet to be addressed. First of all, if the issue is protecting players from the spread of the virus, then it’s not as though reporters are the only ones from whom they need protection:

Here it’s worth noting that several members of the defending champion Nationals — Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson, Kurt Suzuki, Trea Turner, and Ryan Zimmermanplayed golf with president Donald Trump on Sunday in West Palm Beach. The outing came after two congressmen, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and Rep. Matt Goetz of Florida, had contact with Trump and subsequently announced that they had self-quarantined upon learning they had previously been exposed to someone who had subsequently been diagnosed with coronavirus. Yet there has been no mention of the players self-quarantining as well in order to protect their teammates.

Second, if social distancing measures are being mandated with respect to clubhouses, then the question remains as to how the league and its teams can justify packing tens of thousands of fans — whose health they have no way of monitoring, unlike their own players, and who are likely to be at greater risk than the athletes given their ages and physical conditions — into ballparks on a daily basis. Obviously they’re loathe to forgo the potential revenues, while cancellations or empty ballparks would also put many stadium employees out of work.

Via The New York Times, in its coverage of the canceled BNP Paribas Open, “Medical experts remain divided over the benefit of canceling mass events in locations that are not hot spots for the virus, or whether the people who might have attended these events are any safer simply going through their everyday lives, especially those who live in major metropolitan areas.”

As Yahoo! Sports’ Hannah Keyser noted, games in California and Seattle, where the COVD-19 outbreaks have been more acute than elsewhere in the country, face different levels of concern than those in areas where the virus has less of a foothold. For her article, Keyser spoke to an expert in infectious diseases:

The league’s ultimate calculus regarding attendance in the time of the coronavirus will include careful consideration of the incredible financial loss and cultural impact of conceding ticket and concession sales and the energy of full stadiums to the epidemic — but what about exclusively from a public health standpoint? Should Major League Baseball consider barring fans from games on Opening Day and beyond?

“It is an effective infection control mitigation strategy. There’s no question about that,” said Cameron Wolfe, associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Duke University health system.

While not as contagious as some historic epidemics — “I’d much rather sit next to the person that has coronavirus than measles,” Wolfe said — the coronavirus possesses a couple of key characteristics that makes big venues like baseball stadiums particularly dangerous. First, that it has a better ability than something like the flu to survive on surfaces outside the body. And, critically, that a lot of infected people don’t know that they are.

“I think what’s becoming clear is that for younger, healthier individuals, they don’t necessarily feel super sick. And so they may not feel sick enough to give up their basketball ticket, or the first game of the Mets,” Wolfe said. “And so they’ll show up, unaware that the 80-year-old that’s got the ticket beside them is actually much more prone for a much more severe outcome should they get the virus as a result.”

Elsewhere within a piece that’s well worth reading, Keyser mentioned the April 29, 2015 game between the White Sox and Orioles in Baltimore, which was played behind closed doors amid civic unrest stemming from the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody 10 days earlier. Because so much security was needed elsewhere in the city, after postponing the series’ first two games, Major League Baseball and the teams made the decision to play the finale without fans, a first in MLB history. The press box was packed with reporters for that contest, making for a very surreal scene.

Could such a situation become the new normal throughout baseball, at least for the short term? Again, the league has no immediate plans to pursue closed doors or cancellations, but one need only look to developments such as that in Italy’s Serie A football to appreciate the fluidity of the situation, as things can quickly change. Last Wednesday, the Italian government announced that all sporting events in the country would take place without fans present for at least a month. Five Serie A matches were played in empty stadiums over the next few days, but with the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases growing rapidly, as of Tuesday all sporting events throughout the country have been canceled, and an entire nation of 60 million citizens is in lockdown.

[UPDATE: Just a few hours after this piece was published, the Seattle Times reported that Washington governor Jay Inslee is expected to announce plans to restrict gatherings of more than 250 people, a move aimed at sporting events, concerts, and other cultural events. The Athletic’s Evan Drelich subsequently reported that the Mariners could temporarily play their regular season home games at their Peoria, Arizona spring training facility if Seattle is not an option. With Inslee’s ban in effect through March and perhaps longer, at the very least the team’s first two series, against the Rangers and Twins, will have to be relocated.]

All of which is to say that a week or two from now, MLB and other leagues — to say nothing of the rest of the US — may need to confront a different reality than they’re facing today. I can’t advise holding your breath while waiting for Opening Day to go down as planned, but please cough and sneeze into your elbows, wash your hands frequently, read up on the virus from trusted sources, and stay safe.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I understand that for MLB and for individual teams, playing games in front of empty stadiums is hard to stomach, especially all the lost revenue. Yet I think that doing what they can to make sure that the games themselves can go on (unlike in Italy) would probably be prudent. The downside risk for MLB (and other leagues) in pretending that nothing is really wrong is massive, and I can’t really understand why they’re ignoring it.

3 years ago
Reply to  Sportszilla

The NCAA just announced that March Madness will be played in empty arenas with no fans. We will probably see a wave of similar decisions soon. The downside of an MLB or NBA game becoming a vector is just too huge in too many ways.

3 years ago
Reply to  synco

Hoo boy and now the NBA just suspended its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. I don’t think we’re getting baseball in a few weeks.

Rich Rieders
3 years ago
Reply to  Sportszilla

Why not just start the regular season in Florida and Arizona? Fans are not going to be allowed to watch for the foreseeable future so instead of chartering jets to play games in empty stadium’s across the country, they might as will recoup some of their losses by playing in the spring training facilities where the weather is warmer and the transportation costs are much lower.