A day inside MLB’s COVID protocols
Consider a day in the life of a Major League Baseball player. Chillin' in the clubhouse. Sharing meals and bus rides with teammates and coaches. Signing autographs and posing for fan photos. Barking at umpires and greeting old friends on the other team. High-fiving after a dinger. On an average day before the coronavirus, that player might encounter hundreds of people.
But in this strange season, MLB has 100-plus pages of rules to keep players, coaches, umpires and team staff apart and healthy. A few measures will be visible to fans on TV, but many others will unfold behind the scenes. We mapped out a single day to determine the number of people an average player might encounter -- if he lives and plays by the book.
MLB will strictly limit all access to the ballpark on game day. Close access to players -- think clubhouses and dugouts -- will be locked down even more. Everyone is assigned an access tier by function, with low-priority workers allowed in restricted areas only after the team is gone. Personal protective equipment (PPE) will be required almost everywhere but on the field.
MLB caps the number of people teams can assign to each tier, which dictates a person's access within the ballpark. While 60 players are permitted in Tier 1, the Opening Day active roster will max out at 30.
Our player has a home game today, so he starts the day with his family. MLB requires everyone with access to restricted areas to take their own temperature twice in succession and complete a symptom questionnaire before leaving their residence. Our player is symptom- and fever-free. He's clear to go.
MLB's protocol says teams should consider requiring players to dress in their uniforms at home to limit locker room time. But most players will probably stick to normal routines and dress at the park, letting the team do their laundry.
Our player drives his own car to the ballpark. Members of the opposing team arrive on a team bus or in private vehicles. No public transportation is allowed. Car services are permitted, but only if the services are in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
Players don masks before entering the park. Everyone gets two more temperature checks and completes another symptom questionnaire at a screening station; in another area, some will be tested for COVID-19 (all Tier 1 individuals will be subject to testing every other day during the season). These screening stations must be a safe distance from entrances and allow for physical distancing between those waiting. Our player arrives at about the same time as five other players, and at least one person would conduct the screening.
“All Tier 1 individuals should wear an appropriate face covering at all times in Club facilities ... players are not required to wear face coverings while on the field or in the bullpen or dugout.”MLB health protocol
Players with preexisting conditions deemed to be high-risk can opt out of the season and still get paid and maintain their service time. Players without that designation will forgo pay and service if they opt out.
Everyone in tiers 1, 2 and 3 must wear a club- or MLB-issued credential that includes a photo and their assigned tier number around their neck. Players, uniformed team personnel and umpires may remove their IDs in the clubhouse, training rooms, dugout, field or bullpen.
After passing through screening, our player makes his way toward the clubhouse with as few contact points as possible. Doors, for example, should be propped open. MLB is mandating 6 feet between occupied lockers and suggests rearranging furniture and posting signs about maximum occupancy, hygiene and social distancing. Some pregame meetings -- with analytics staff, for example -- will likely happen by video chat. For our player, there are eight teammates, two interpreters and a media relations representative in the clubhouse when he drops off his gear.
MLB is suggesting teams establish additional temporary clubhouses so players can spread out even more. When "indoor time is unavoidable," according to MLB, clubs should increase ventilation in those areas. If a team doesn't have space for an auxiliary clubhouse, it should stagger arrival times to ensure social distancing, the rules say.
This is where players may have the closest physical contact with others, whether for a pregame massage or to get taped up. Teams are encouraged to expand training rooms into additional spaces and will require PPE. Our player encounters a physical therapist, a trainer and two teammates in the training room.
If our player needs sunscreen or bug spray, it'll be provided to him in individual packaging. Other items normally stocked in bulk that he's typically able to access himself -- bandages, throat lozenges, ibuprofen -- should instead be "secured and distributed" by club medical staff, according to MLB's plan. Any needed dietary supplements will be available in single-serve packets, as opposed to large powder tubs.
Between navigating the clubhouse and the weight room, attending meetings and warming up on the field, our player might encounter the 14 remaining teammates on the active roster, nine coaches (including the team's strength and conditioning coach), the manager and five clubhouse attendants. In the weight room, he'll be encouraged to wear gloves. Any equipment that can't be sanitized after use (think rice buckets used for hand strengthening) should be removed.
MLB will “discourage the use of indoor batting cages when hitting outdoors is feasible.”League health protocol
Social distancing protocols apply in dugouts, too. Only players active for that day and likely to enter the game are allowed. Others will likely sit, socially distanced, in the stands. Signage and barriers will limit movement and promote physical distancing within the dugout. Single-use towels will be discarded immediately. No spitting, chewing tobacco or sunflower seeds are allowed. Even if there's a grand slam, players "must avoid" high-fives and hugs, the protocol says. Non-playing personnel must wear masks, and people may lean on a railing only if they drape a clean towel over it.
After a socially distanced national anthem, it's game time. Everyone on the field "should practice physical distancing to the extent possible within the limitations of competition and the fundamentals of baseball," according to MLB's protocol. But for the most part, baseball will look like baseball.
On July 17, MLB said 80 players had tested positive for COVID-19 since testing began in June. The following is a breakdown of reported cases by team as of July 19:
Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto has said a few Mariners players have tested positive but declined to specify the number.
MLB has moved on to the monitoring phase of its testing protocol, so players who recently arrived at camps and were subject to intake screenings were not included in the results the league released Friday.
Source: News reports, team statements and ESPN's Jeff Passan
Let's say our player is a first baseman. After a play, he's encouraged to step away from baserunners. The baseball used in that play, if touched by multiple players, is removed from the field and exchanged for a new ball. The base coach must stay in his box to keep distance from both our player and the runner. A clubhouse staff member, not the base coach, is responsible for gathering a player's equipment when he gets on base.
Most of the face-to-face interactions we're used to seeing in a game are disallowed, according to the rules. Players or managers who come within 6 feet of an umpire (or an opposing player or manager) to argue are subject to ejection. If someone gets hurt, teammates are not supposed to approach within 6 feet of him.
“Players and other on-field personnel should wash or sanitize their hands after each half-inning or the handling of equipment.”MLB health protocol
First basemen -- and really, all position players -- have lots of close encounters during a game. Whether holding runners on first or just standing near the bag as a runner zips by (breathing heavily) while stretching a single into a double, our player potentially interacts with at least nine opponents.
“Players and all other on-field personnel must make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”MLB health protocol
When our player is batting, he stands relatively close to the plate umpire. The other three umps don't normally have much contact with our player. Nor does the grounds crew, who should be masked and on the field only when players aren't, according to the rules. Bat and ball boys are replaced by other clubhouse staff. After the game, there should be no high-fives, hugs, fist-bumps or handshakes.
“Home Clubs may have their mascot in the ballpark if they choose, however under no circumstances are mascots permitted on the field of play or in any other restricted area on game days.”League protocol
Sure, this year's baseball season will be short. But it's unlikely players ever used more hand sanitizer, or consumed fewer sunflower seeds, than in any season before. Assuming 60 nine-inning games, here's what a player can expect.
After the game, our player makes his way back to the clubhouse. Any postgame interviews will likely occur via video chat. Members of the media are prohibited in restricted areas.
By the rules, showering at the ballpark is discouraged but not forbidden. Our player might find partitions or curtains between showers or every other shower head and handle removed. Communal combs, deodorant, hair gel, mouthwash and toothpaste are prohibited, as is the use of saunas and steam rooms. Postgame meals are handed out in to-go containers rather than offered in a buffet.
Back home, our player has his last interaction of the day. After being around 60 people at the ballpark, he sees three more -- his wife and two children.
Pedro Gomez, John Mastroberardino, Jeff Passan, Laura M. Purtell and T.J. Quinn contributed to this report. Illustrations by Rafa Alvarez.