Inside MLB's 2020 season plan to play through a pandemic -- and where it could go wrong

Ten days ago, as Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continued haggling over finances in return-to-play discussions, one official said the whole thing felt like "Game of Thrones." All this fighting over money and power when the real hazard for the 2020 MLB season -- the existential threat -- loomed elsewhere.

"The COVID 'white walkers' are real," he said.

With less than a week before players report to training camps in anticipation of a season set to begin July 23 or 24, baseball is grappling with the difficulty of playing a season in the midst of a global pandemic. Calling the task daunting does not do it service. The pervasiveness of the coronavirus, the spike in cases over recent weeks, the city-to-city travel by teams and the lack of rules explicitly limiting off-field movement of players and employees introduce a harsh truth about the game's resumption:

There are going to be COVID-19 cases throughout MLB.

The PGA Tour is finding out the hard way that even in the most socially distanced sport, the virus' ubiquity is undefeated. It's a reality with which MLB and players are willing to live -- until they're not. The parties' 101-page operations manual for 2020 does not address with any specificity how a season would proceed in the event of a coronavirus outbreak within a team.

While the processes in place to handle individual positive cases are dutiful and will be reinforced with even more specificity by each team, the language regarding the actions the sport would take with a deluge of cases is general and vague.

The answers to those hypotheticals would come in the moment. It's important to understand that baseball does not exist in a vacuum. The sport's reopening will add tens of thousands of interactions, each carrying a level of hazard, every day. The risk for individual players, because of their age and general health, is minimal but still very real. The risk for older employees -- managers, coaches, training staff -- is far more palpable. The risk for the sport is, quite literally, immeasurable.

There are countless questions about how baseball will -- or whether it can -- subsist for the next four months. Here are 20 of the most pertinent:

How many players are going to test positive next week upon the intake screening before training camps open?

League personnel, team officials and players are readying for a deluge of positives -- both in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing that detects whether a person currently has COVID-19 and the antibody testing that identifies past infection.

Nearly 1,800 players are expected to report to camps. A large number live in Arizona, Florida, Texas and California, four states with recent spikes. Others are flying in from countries around the world. To think that baseball will somehow be immune -- that it differs demonstrably from the general population -- would be naive.

At the screening, players will submit saliva for the PCR test and blood for the antibody test. COVID-positive players could number 25, 50, 100, more. Those who do test positive via the PCR test will immediately isolate until they fulfill certain measures:

  • Two negative COVID-19 tests, taken at least 24 hours apart

  • No fever for at least 72 hours (while not using fever-suppressing medicine) and no respiratory symptoms, as judged by a doctor or team medical staff

  • Team physician and a joint committee consisting of two doctors and one non-medical representative from MLB and the MLBPA deem that the person does not pose a risk of spreading infection

Other potential snags exist. Individuals must satisfy local health requirements. Team doctors can ask for a cardiac evaluation. Contact tracing for the positive individual will take place. Those who have been in his or her presence must self-isolate until a negative result on a COVID test is returned. They'll undergo more frequent temperature testing for 10 days and cannot return unless they're asymptomatic.

That's a lot.

It's just the start. And it has to be if baseball is played in 2020.

Then why play?

That's not an unreasonable question. The answer is that players say they want to, owners say they want to, federal officials want them to and local health officials have yet to say they can't. There was a very simple binary at hand: season or no season. Baseball chose season.

Everyone involved recognizes that baseball in 2020 -- sports in 2020 -- is a house of cards. All it takes is one municipality to threaten the entire endeavor. Yes, MLB has the ability to move games. Say a governor locks down a state. A team scheduled to host games could theoretically move to a backup location. But what if that happens to two teams? Or three? Or five? At some point, the churn could become too overwhelming to continue.

As one executive put it: "Baseball that makes people sick is not baseball."

So this could go completely sideways?

Oh, absolutely. And if the above scenario happens, the March agreement between the players and owners gives commissioner Rob Manfred broad powers to scuttle the season.

On Tuesday, when the league and union were finalizing the health-and-safety protocol, there was a slight holdup over language about Manfred's ability to steer a season. Already the March agreement addressed Manfred's "right to suspend or cancel games." The language in question, according to a copy obtained by ESPN, said that Manfred can do so if "the number of players who are unavailable to perform services due to COVID-19 is so great that the competitive integrity of the season is undermined."

The general wording offers Manfred a wide berth -- which makes sense because as commissioner he already wields the best-interests-of-baseball clause. The players, skeptical after months of negotiations had turned ugly, were reticent about rubber-stamping Manfred's unilateral ability to cancel a season when doing so would immediately end their ability to get paid. Eventually, the players agreed, paving the way for the season's return.

Worth noting: MLB is proceeding with training camps on the heels of seven Philadelphia Phillies players and five employees testing positive for COVID-19. Teams have publicly acknowledged at least a dozen other positive cases. At the very least, it sets a baseline to illustrate what the league will accept.

Then what constitutes the undermining of competitive integrity?

The answer may fall first on the teams. The operations manual places a significant amount of the onus on organizations: outfitting their stadiums to abide by social distancing mandates, figuring out logistics in case of positive tests at home and on the road, arranging travel that adheres to the strict rules and, perhaps most important, making the value judgment of when this nebulous notion of competitive integrity is breached.

"We haven't figured this out," one general manager said this week, and he is not alone. Does a team that has three positive tests, but all of them are starting pitchers, plead undermined competitive integrity and move to shut down? Probably not. But what if their intake testing returns positive and they need to spend the first two weeks of training camp quarantined and they aren't ready for the first two weeks of a season that goes only nine?

Or perhaps there are more positives. Five? Seven? Ten? Five positives and 10 others exposed and needing to quarantine? How many is too many?

There is no set number in the operations manual. The system's fail-safe key relies on judgment. That scares a lot of people -- not just players, either -- who fear that playing invites moral hazard. Will MLB, wary of shutting down after spending so much time and effort starting, not act decisively? Will owners, frightened by the damage it does to their businesses in the short and long term, push to play? Will players, who bear the risk, get an equal voice in the matter?

Go even more granular: What if there is a rash of positive tests ... but only one of the cases is symptomatic? The intake testing could offer a general answer to that question, with most of the positives likely to be asymptomatic.

What happens if someone is hospitalized?

The operations manual doesn't answer that, either. It's one thing to have asymptomatic players or even those with flu-like symptoms. Hospitalization is an entirely different situation -- and the league's reaction to that hypothetical scenario, one player said, might not necessarily be consistent.

"If it's a utility guy nobody knows about, is that going to shut the season down? Probably not," he said. "If it's Mike Trout or someone big on the Yankees? It might."

Most teams are gathering at home stadiums for training camp. They'll start traveling regularly in less than a month. Is this the best way to do it?

There is no good way. That's life with a highly communicable disease in a nation that bungled the response and can't seem to do what almost every other country around the world has. Even if MLB and the players are perfect, it might not be enough. And they won't be perfect.

Just think: The two other plans with the most traction MLB considered were a 30-team bubble in Arizona or using hub cities in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Either option would look disastrous right now. The coronavirus makes planning almost impossible, which makes preparation and flexibility that much more paramount.

And that falls explicitly on Rob Manfred. This is his biggest leadership test. He has proven himself a canny negotiator and has made billions of dollars for owners. Mastering the public-facing elements of the job has proven more elusive. The sign-stealing mess, calling the World Series trophy a "piece of metal," the ugliness of the economic negotiations -- Manfred has found himself a handy punching bag for fans.

This is altogether different. It requires moral clarity and prescience, the latter of which is especially rare when no one can possibly predict where the coronavirus goes next. What no leader wants, either, is to be the person who reacted too late. So with the control of the season, and with the ability to reschedule games, Manfred does not need to be shy about acting swiftly when necessary.

Can anyone else can shut the sport down?

Governments. Federal, state, local. Politicians and health officials. All it takes one statewide order in California. If five teams need to relocate to alternate locations, how quickly can they do so? Do the West divisions just play fewer games than the rest of the league? Or is that just too much for the game to stomach and a prelude to a shutdown?

The notion of a state waylaying the season is not far-fetched. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut's plan to quarantine travelers from hot-spot areas could have imperiled the Yankees' and Mets' games against Tampa Bay and Miami. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo exempted them.

Other states could undertake similar orders. And if they do, baseball might not find itself protected.

So how is baseball trying to prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

Temperature checks, testing and distancing. Players will take their temperatures using a personal digital thermometer twice earlier in the day before entering the stadium, where they'll be screened again. If a player's temperature registers at 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, he'll get tested. Already, players and coaching staff will be tested every other day. And then there are the social distancing measures, reinforced by everything from lockers 6 feet apart to inactive players sitting in the stands to strict boarding and deplaning rules.

Will it work?

Uhhhhhhhh. It could. There are some optimists in baseball. There are some pessimists in baseball. It feels a lot like the country, actually.

The optimists believe the protocol is strong, the resolve to play is motivational and that the league and teams can weather the positive tests and keep playing. The pessimists fear the gathering of groups, the travel, the presence of those who aren't tested as frequently as players or coaches, and the bad timing of baseball's return to coincide with growing case numbers.

Who can help the likelihood of success?

The players. The protocol addresses "Covered Individuals" -- all the people who are going to and from the stadium every day. But the words in the protocol are directed at those who are young, wealthy and consequence-free: "MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from Club facilities, but will expect the Covered Individuals on each Club to ensure that they all act responsibly. The careless actions of a single individual places the entire team (and their families) at risk, and the Covered Individuals on each Club should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to others."

That latter part is especially true. Multiple veteran players have told ESPN they intend on leading direct, stern team meetings upon arrival at training camp. All had some version of the same message: The only way this works is if we do everything we can to avoid COVID. Our health depends on it. Our families' health depends on it. Our paychecks depend on it. Our livelihood depends on it. And our ability to win a championship depends on it. In a 60-game season especially, the team that stays healthy will be the team that wins. So don't be selfish. No clubs. No packed bars. No short-term gain is worth endangering what this team can accomplish.

Can they do it?

You recycled that GIF.

I know. It's just appropriate. You're trying to say 900 active-roster players and 1,800 total will practice monkish self-discipline? That is ... wishful? Naive? Hilarious? D. All of the above? That's about right.

And that's just about going out. The leaders will address behavior at the stadium, too. Players' habits tend to be ingrained, and yet the protocol, ridiculous though in some places it may be, is assiduous enough to provide a good road map for safely circumnavigating COVID. As far as sales pitches go, it's not bad.

The worst part is, although a good proportion of players probably will follow the proper steps, all it takes is one who doesn't. One guy who goes out, who sits too close to others, who feels a tickle in his throat on a plane and tries to stifle a cough. With baseball -- with sports -- it never will be simply about the case numbers and hospitalizations and fatality rates. The optical element that exists is powerful and trains a magnifying glass on small hot spots. The only comparable industry to sports, in terms of the news coronavirus positive tests generate, is politics.

What happens when a player tests positive on the road?

If home is within driving distance, he can head there. If not ... he's probably stuck in a road city for at least a week or two.

Communication and cooperation among teams will be paramount if baseball is going to happen in 2020. Players will test positive on the road, and when they do, the road team will want to consult with the home team to find a proper place to stay, whether it's a hotel, condo or otherwise. Further, the team whose player tests positive will ensure an employee remains in town with him to ensure his well-being and recovery. Teams will do the same already in concussion cases.

Can players just opt out of the season altogether?

Absolutely. Some are planning it already. With training camp report date as early as Wednesday for pitchers and catchers and 60-man player pools being filled, word should filter in over the next few days.

Those deemed high-risk cases -- with a preexisting condition that makes them more susceptible to COVID -- can do so and retain their salary and service time. Those who are not high-risk but have a pregnant wife (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler among them) or an immunocompromised family member can sit, like any other player, but won't get paid or collect service.

Worth noting: If the season is canceled during training camp, players receive their full service time from last year -- even if they opted out -- because the March agreement awards that. If the season starts and stops ... that's a different story.

What are 60-man player pools?

Quickly: From here on, at least for the next few questions, let's operate like the season is happening, if only because the every-other-paragraph caveats just don't fit particularly well.

So, the pools. Because minor league baseball isn't happening this year, MLB teams have no farm system from which they can pluck players. Because coronavirus outbreaks are very real possibilities, the necessity for an extra-deep roster arose. Thus, teams are allowed to invite as many as 60 players to training.

Teams will break camp with 30 players and an additional three-person taxi squad that accompanies them to every game. Two weeks into the season, rosters shrink to 28, and two weeks after that, they're at 26 for the remainder of the season. In the meantime, the leftover players from the 60-man pool will be practicing, player intersquad games and having a ton of downtime.

"You want to know who I worry about getting sick?" one agent said. "It's all the kids who aren't going to be on the big league roster and are going to have all the free time in the world and are going be packed into apartments because they're literally not getting paid to play."

Here's what he means: As part of the March agreement, MLB advanced players $170 million in salary. That money was divvied up into four categories. Players with guaranteed contracts received $286,500. Those with minor league splits in their deals received $60,000, $30,000 or $16,500. Players on their team's 40-man roster for the first time, like top Atlanta prospect Cristian Pache, received the lowest sum.

Pache's contract calls for a $46,000 minor league split. That's in a full season. In this partial season, if he spends its entirety not on the Braves' active roster, Pache would be due a salary of around $17,000. Meaning he could spend the next three months playing baseball -- July training, August and September staying ready -- for a grand total of about $500.

While it's true Pache received the remainder of that money as an advance, the idea of him receiving $40 a week -- pretax -- is comical. So is the fact that there are plenty more young players on 40-man rosters in the exact same position.

Forgiveness of the advance for players on split deals, totaling around $33 million, was part of the framework that emerged from Manfred's meeting with union executive director Tony Clark. The MLBPA pushed for more games and a larger cut of potential new postseason TV money, and when the league imposed its schedule, it no longer included the advance forgiveness. The idea of potentially doing months of work for what feels like free is not sitting well with a large group of young players, according to sources.

What else are they worried about?

Good ol' service-time manipulation, of course. A tutorial: Typically there are 186 days in a season. Players earn major league service every day they're on the big league roster, and 172 days of service equals a full year. Manipulating service happens when a team calls a player up from the minor leagues late enough that he can't earn the full 172 days.

The March agreement outlines this season's service formula: (A x (186/B)), where A is the number of days spent on the major league roster and B is the number of days in the season. We know B is 66, which means to receive a full year of major league service, players must spend at least 61 of those 66 days on the active roster.

In other words, teams can leave their best prospects off their major league roster for less than a week, delay the player's free agency by a year and chalk it up to the exceptional circumstances of 2020. The exact cutoff date: July 29. Any player called up that date or later gets "service-timed."

Another concern: Some players on one-year, non-guaranteed contracts are starting to worry about unemployment. Typically, if a team cuts a player with such a deal late in spring training, he is owed 45 days' termination pay. Not under the operations manual, which says players will be paid for 45 days "at the adjusted rate." And considering teams are looking to scrimp and save wherever they can, unloading some pricey veterans at a fraction of their anticipated cost is exactly how some ownership groups care to operate.


Because they say losses are going to be, as Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said, "Biblical." Maybe he was talking about Ecclesiastes 5:10, which says: "Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income."

Anyway, the owners claim most of the losses come from a lack of ticket sales. It's why Houston Astros owner Jim Crane said that as coronavirus cases balloon in Texas, his plan ... is to sell tickets to games. The only way to make up for lost revenue, he said, is to peddle tickets, merchandise, beer -- "whatever they'd like to have," Crane said.

Crane's ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment remains undefeated in 2020, though tucked into Page 28 of the operations manual is a very simple phrase hiding in the middle of a paragraph: "Clubs may permit fan attendance at games with the approval of MLB and relevant local authorities."

Should MLB get through training camps, and should the players find a good rhythm in the new setting, the notion of fans isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility. It's just ... well, you're more than 3,500 words into this. You know what it is.

If games actually are played, what are they going to look like?

They might not be great. The combination of an aborted spring training, three months away and three weeks of spring training 2.0 does not necessarily portend great baseball.

It will look different, and not just because there's a designated hitter in the National League now and a runner will start on second base in extra innings. The lack of time to stretch out starting pitchers could lead to deeper organizations stacking two starting pitchers together in the same game, a strategy known as piggybacking. It's rather common in the minor leagues, where teams try to limit young pitchers' innings. In the big leagues? That would be new.

Remember, nobody knows how pitchers are going to respond. Some have been throwing regularly. Others haven't picked up a ball. A lot of evaluators believe pitching injuries will spike.

For hitters, soft-tissue injuries are the bigger concern. Hamstrings, in particular, are finicky muscles that often are strained in the first month of the season. That could be because of March and April weather. It could be the ascent from spring training to game speed.

The biggest concern, naturally, is COVID-19 cases -- and the reality that the saliva tests being administered could produce false positives in addition to real ones. Even if a slight outbreak doesn't shut down a season, it can ruin one in a hurry.

Can't teams in that position just trade for guys?

Not after Aug. 31. That's the deadline this year. And remember, too, trades may be difficult to come by. Scouts haven't seen prospects since March. And shipping out a player in the middle of a pandemic, one GM said, "feels wrong."

So what happens if there's an outbreak Sept. 1?

Hopefully there are enough players in the 60-man player pool to field a representative team. But say there's an acute situation where both catchers on the active roster and two more on the 60-man tested positive for COVID-19.

The answer: Go to Nashville, Tennessee, where the Triple-A Sounds are starting their own satellite league. It doesn't sound like it's going to be too fancy: 40 games between two teams of minor league free agents who get paid $400 a week starting July 23, the suspected start date of the MLB season.

"Guys are going to get signed out of there," one official said. "Especially catchers and bullpen arms. We are all going to need both of those, and if these are the only games being played, they'll be the most ready to play."

Saved the most important question for last.

Bet it's some heady stuff. Whatcha got?

Is MLB really going to enforce a ban on spitting?

That's the most important question?


Fine. Of course they're not going to.

Here is the rule from the operations manual: "Spitting is prohibited (including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco) at all times in Club facilities (including on the field). Chewing gum is permitted." Aside from the clear bribery perpetuated by the chewing-gum lobby, the remainder of the rule is there more as a reminder.

The virus, it says without saying, is here, and it is the thing that can end this season before it begins. So if players think for even a second that they probably shouldn't spit in between pitches ... that's one less potentially harmful expectoration. Add up dozens, hundreds, thousands, and maybe it changes the calculus. That and distancing and being responsible.

There are so many places it can go wrong that if MLB completes a season, it will have not only its protocol and behavior to thank but a heaping mine of luck. Baseball may well be back, yes. But just for how long is anybody's guess.