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MLB Faces Its Biggest Challenge Yet: Playing Through A Pandemic

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Major League Baseball is set to begin its second Spring Training on July 1st, amid surging Coronavirus cases in multiple states where baseball players reside or must play games in.

We finally have baseball back. But it’s going to be a challenge keeping the players, staff, and family members safe as they are more exposed to the virus than most people. The people who are assigned to make this season work have a tough job because they do their best but do not have much training on how to handle a pandemic. All 30 teams have been given the 100-plus page document from Major League Baseball that states the health and safety protocols, that include color-coded charts, constant testing, diagnostic questionnaires, and social distancing workout diagrams, but this material is new and will take some time to get used to.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in the document and many things that are going to be done to protect the players, but there is a lot that cannot be accounted for, such as virus hot spots through which each of the 2,000-plus team members could pass and unknowingly become carriers of the virus. How the members of each team treat the virus is important, as we know from the national example that when certain people don’t follow the guidelines in place, everybody suffers. In the United States, reported daily cases grew from 18,000 to 45,000 in two weeks as people did not follow the guidelines in place as the country slowly starter to re-open its economy.

Everybody from the players to the fans hopes that this will work, hoping the virus will not interfere with training camp, the 60-game regular season or the postseason that is lucrative for Major League Baseball as that is when they will make the majority of their money.

Playing sports amid a global pandemic is not easy. The National Basketball Association will attempt to restart its season in a bubble of containment in Orlando, Florida, as an attempt to wall off the virus and outsiders at risk for infection. Major League Baseball is taking a far different approach as they are going to attempt to conduct business in multiple stadiums, and after the games are finished, players will return to their hotel rooms, homes, or apartments to a family that has been exposed to others, with no bubble in place.

The NBA is doing all of its work under one roof with very limited access. MLB is going to do the opposite as players, coaches and team staff will move from state to state, city to city, hotel to hotel under the best circumstances. Under the worst-case scenario, players will venture outside of their safe zone by going to restaurants or parks. This is expected to happen regularly.

In Houston, hospitals are near or at full capacity due to the number of people infected with the Coronavirus. Carlos del Rio, an epidemiologist at Atlanta’s Emory University Medical School, was asked about baseball returning at 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."

At this point, it’s hard to point fingers of blame if something goes wrong. Commissioner Rob Manfred is a lawyer, not a professional health expert. General managers are masters of player development, contract negotiations, and valent valuation; none of them have any background experience in dealing with a pandemic. Managers are trained in employee relations and guiding teams, not social-distancing discipline. As one agent noted, players learned to trust baseball analytics, but trying to understand a pandemic is something they are not familiar with, nobody is.

Jeff Passan of ESPN stated on Friday that Manfred has the power to pull baseball off this bad path. In the face of the mounting number of cases in numerous states and the headaches of trying to get the players familiar with the protocol, he should consider pausing baseball’s clock in the hope of some stabilization. He might even need to cancel the entire season if cases continue to go up at a record pace.

If that were to happen, it would be extremely disappointing but there would not be any shame in that. America has been devastated by the virus as it has cost many people their jobs, wealth, and even their life. Amid a global pandemic, Major League Baseball reflects a stalled and fractured country that is searching for better days.

This pandemic has changed baseball significantly in 2020, and it’s going to be a big challenge getting through the season safely.

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