MLB’s return to play will rely on one document: A 101-page “Operations Manual” that offers a model for baseball in a time of infectious disease. That means no spitting, no high-fiving, no rosin-bag sharing; regular virus testing, daily temperature checks, monthly antibody testing; a new policy for extra innings, social distancing for the national anthem, and a universal DH. The document was finished and released this week. But it builds off a 67-page draft that circulated in mid-May, which laid the foundation for all of the initial conversations about what baseball could look like this summer.
In other words, the last six weeks of research and conversations resulted in 34 additional pages of rules and regulations. Much of this will not be visible to fans (it’s hard to think of anything more “inside baseball” than the new requirements for players’ air conditioning units in hotels), and some of it may not affect much of anything at all. But it sheds some light on just how much has been worked out since the first vision of pandemic baseball was laid out in May—including how baseball has tried to address problems or questions with the original draft of the manual. If you're curious about what’s new, then, here’s a rundown:
The creation of a joint COVID-19 health and safety committee
The original manual did not specify who would be responsible for big-picture oversight of the league’s virus response. That’s shifted. There will be a committee that consists of one non-medical representative from MLB, one non-medical representative from the MLBPA, and two physicians, one appointed by each group. They’ll settle any disputes that arise with a majority vote, and in the event that the committee is not able to find a majority, the MLB-appointed physician and MLBPA-appointed physician will jointly select an independent expert to resolve it.
This gives a bit more of a voice to players. In the original manual, MLB alone was responsible for, say, a decision on whether to switch to a different method for testing if a more advanced system becomes available, or how to administer free tests to a player’s family. Now, those fall to the committee.
How do players and other employees take their temperature at home?
From the start, there was a general requirement that employees would have to take their temperatures at home each day before they came to the ballpark and, in the case of a fever, tell the team doctor. Now, there are more details. Teams will give employees their own digital thermometers to use each morning, and MLB will share a mobile app for them to answer a few daily questions about any symptoms. (With a fever, employees are still supposed to reach out directly to the team doctor, in addition to logging it in the app.) And as for the separate temperature check and symptom questionnaire needed to enter the ballpark? The visiting team can now do this at the hotel or on the team bus, so long as it’s no more than two hours before they arrive at the stadium. These, too, will be logged in the mobile app designated by MLB—as well as the information from every temperature check and daily symptom questionnaire taken at the ballpark—and the league will do data audits once a week to ensure that teams adhere to all standards.
What should a Team’s plan look like for someone who tests positive?
Each team has to make its own “COVID-19 Action Plan.” Now, we know specifically what that must address: How will you handle an individual who tests positive on the road? If someone tests positive at home and needs to isolate from his family, what choices will be available for him? Each team must identify one or more local hotels or apartment complexes for that.
What are you going to do about health issues other than the coronavirus? How do you contact local health officials? All this information must be submitted to the joint committee before a team can start spring training.
More specificity on testing regularity
Originally, we knew that players would be tested for the coronavirus “multiple times per week.” Now, that’s codified as “every other day.” The “multiple times per week” standard still holds for club employees who do not have much direct contact with players.
What does a ballpark’s area for virus testing look like?
While the original manual required that ballparks have a dedicated area to collect samples for testing, there’s now information about what it has to look like. If possible, it should be outdoors. If not, it needs “enhanced ventilation,” and it should have space for only two to four people, with a small table and chairs.
What does the lab do if someone tests positive?
There’s a standard for that now. The lab will inform the joint committee, and the MLB committee rep will inform the medical staff of the team, and the medical staff will inform the employee who tested positive, as well as local health officials, if necessary.
What happens if playing in home ballparks isn’t feasible?
The original manual did not entertain this possibility. But the new one does: MLB, with approval from MLBPA, can mandate additional precautions at any time, including relocating a team to a neutral site or spring training ballpark if the home stadium is no longer deemed safe. The commissioner can also reschedule any games for health and safety reasons, as deemed necessary, and the entire postseason may be played at a neutral site.
Who is considered a “Tier 1” individual—MLB’s highest level of essential ballpark personnel?
Originally, each team would have had to name 66 people as “Tier 1,” the highest clearance, which determines essential on-field personnel. The set, which initially was supposed to include 50 players, 1 manager, and 15 other coaches and physicians, not consist of 88 people. Who are those extra 22? A team can have 10 more players, four more coaches, four more physicians, two physical therapists, one more strength or conditioning coordinator, and one translator, if needed for a player who does not speak English or Spanish. Other staff will be designated as either “Tier 2” or “Tier 3,” depending on their job, with more limited access to facilities.
Do players have to wear masks?
Yes and no. The updated version of this requirement states that players (and other individuals in Tier 1) must use face masks at the park, with the exception being players do not have to wear them on the field, in the dugout, in the bullpen or when otherwise engaging in any “strenuous activities.” A player still can, if he chooses to—but both his team and MLB must approve his mask, and it cannot feature “undue commercialization.” In other words: No advertisements on your face covering. Managers and other uniformed staff will also be allowed to forgo wearing masks during games.
How do you social distance in a weight room?
The guidelines on this from the original manual have been expanded: Teams should create staggered workout schedules so everyone can maintain six feet of space in the workout room all times, players must rack and carry their own weights, and no communal tubs of protein power or other supplements.
What about replay rooms?
Originally, there was just a provision stating that clubs had to sanitize the replay room thoroughly. Now, players—and others who are considered Tier 1, like coaches—will be barred from going in the room. There will be no communal video terminals of any sort for players, who will instead get personal tablets that can be loaded with content for them before and after games.
What will in-game entertainment look like?
Well, it’s not going to look like much, but there have been some changes. From the first manual, teams could not do Jumbotron replays or display out-of-town scores, with the rationale that it could require additional staff to handle those tasks. Now, those can be done if “existing scoreboard personnel who already have a scoreboard operations assignment” can take care of it.
And—very important!—the roles of mascots were originally unclear. Now, they will be permitted in the ballpark, though not on the field or in any restricted area.
How does flying work?
While the first manual had a slew of rules around air travel, there are now even more. For one, MLB has instituted an official process for boarding: window seats come on first and leave last. Everyone must wear masks for the duration of the flight, open the air vents above their seat and wipe down their armrest and headrest with disinfectant wipes that they will receive when they board. As for meals, everyone will receive a pre-packed bag with food, drinks and snacks, and people may not eat or drink at the same time as anyone else in their row. And, yes, there’s also a formal requirement that people shut the airplane toilet before they flush and a recommendation that no one uses the restroom directly after someone else. Finally, the original requirement that players’ seats be appropriately spaced has been modified to specifically ensure that all middle seats are kept empty.
What will rosters look like?
These, too, were absent from the original manual. There’s the new trade deadline (Aug. 31), the first date a team can re-sign a player who was released before this spring’s transaction freeze (20 days before Opening Day, so July 3 or 4) and the elimination of waiver periods.
As for the actual rosters? Each team will select 60 names for its “player pool,” which will consist of the 40-man roster and 20 additional players who may at some point be on the 40-man. Those who are not on the 40-man roster and do not have a major-league contract will be paid by the terms of a minor-league contract. The active roster will start at 30 players on Opening Day, be cut to 28 on the 15th day of the season, and be further cut to 26 on the 29th day of the season. So what happens to the players who are in the pool but not on the active roster? They’ll be at an “alternate spring training site,” where clubs will have a secondary baseball facility. Up to three of these players can be added to a separate taxi squad that will travel with the active roster.
And the other new additions:
• A set of relevant employees from each team must complete an MLB-approved contact-tracing course before the season starts.
• MLB and the MLBPA must confirm the final list of players who are considered “high-risk individuals.”
• Since umpires will not have as many spring training games to prepare with, teams should be open to letting umps observe workouts and live BP to have their own “spring training.”
• Players cannot show up to the ballpark more than five hours before first pitch and must leave an hour and a half after the game.
• Hand sanitizer (surrounded by “conspicuous signage”) must be in the dugout.
• Players must grab their own gloves, hats, sunglasses, etc. before they take the field—teammates or staff cannot carry or toss them from the dugout.
• While players can come to the ballpark on off-days, the clubhouse cannot be open to them for more than four hours.
• The player and staff education program (which will cover symptoms of COVID-19, what to do if someone feels sick, how to adhere to all of these new guidelines, etc.) has been expanded to note two additional topics: mental health support and resources, and “the importance of the flu vaccine in the context of COVID-19."
• Someone decided to make this addition: “Clubs must devote the same resources and care to cleaning and disinfecting the visiting clubhouse, dugout, bullpen and other visiting Club areas as they do to home Club areas.” In other words, no attempts at finding a competitive advantage via your sanitizing policy.
• Each club must create a policy for handling communal clubhouse items—think ping-pong paddles, dominoes, dice, and foosball tables—whether their answer is regularly disinfecting such equipment or just removing it entirely.
• The players will not be allowed to drink from the glass cups or ceramic mugs in hotel rooms. Instead, all hotels must be supplied with single-use cups.
• The language around leaving the hotel has been relaxed. Originally, it said that players “may not leave the club’s hotel”; now, it’s “should avoid leaving the club’s hotel for non-essential purposes.”
• On the road, players can order Uber Eats or Postmates, but the food must be dropped off with hotel staff who then can bring it to players in a safe manner.
• And one further change about hotels: The AC in players’ rooms should be set to “all-outside air” (for a unitary system) or “100% outside air mode” (for central air), and players are encouraged to have their windows open as much as possible.
• All of those new rules that you've heard about, like the universal DH and a runner on second base to start extra innings.
• If a team cannot have lockers six feet apart, it will have to stagger players' schedules for getting changed.
• Guys can lean on the dugout railing... if they lay down towels first.
• During games, “the bullpen” doesn’t have to be confined to the physical ‘pen, unless they’re actively warming. The pitchers and coaches can use stadium seats adjacent to the bullpen to maximize their distance from one another.
• The 15-day IL for pitchers has been changed to a 10-day IL. A COVID-19 Related Injured List, with no time limit, will be for players who become infected with the coronavirus or have symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
• Each club must hire an “Infection Control Prevention Coordinator” to manage all of this. (If they don’t already have someone in mind, the manual includes a job posting that they can use.)
• There are now provisions on how to safely travel by train, if a team must do so.
• Players can use hydrotherapy and cryotherapy units—the original manual had banned them, along with saunas and steam rooms, but the new one changes that. (There’s still a block on saunas and steam rooms.)
• There was already a restriction on unanticipated deliveries, like gifts, but this line has been added: “Players should be discouraged from ordering even anticipated items (e.g., Amazon orders) to the ballpark.” No more using the workplace to take care of your packages.
• We now have a specific measure on how long teams must wait to reuse a baseball from warmups or batting practice after it’s been disinfected—five days.
• Clubs must name someone to handle stadium medical care for those who are not in Tier 1. So if someone who’s considered Tier 2 or 3—say, a groundskeeper—sustains an injury at the ballpark, this separate physician, rather than a team doctor who interacts with players, must treat him.
• There’s now an official ban on taking public transit to the ballpark. If a player cannot drive himself or walk, he must use a car service that meets certain sanitation standards.
• Forget shared sunscreen bottles, bug spray, Band-Aids, etc. A provision has been added to the manual to recommend these items’ distribution only in “personalized units.”
• Players were previously prohibited from spitting, using smokeless tobacco, and chewing sunflower seeds or peanut shells only in “restricted areas,” like the field and dugout, essentially. Now? They’re prohibited in any area of all club facilities. (The peanut shells are another addition—the first version only called out sunflower seeds.)
• Teams must identify a well-ventilated area with sufficient space for social distancing that can be used in the event of a rain delay.
• There’s now a specific requirement for social distancing off the field: “If individuals will be in a given space for 15 minutes or longer, there must be no more than one person per 36 square feet.”
• There’s now one line about the potential to play games with fans (hello, Texas): “Clubs may permit fan attendance at games with the approval of MLB and relevant local authorities.”