We read the MLB manual on baseball's new pandemic reality so you don’t have to

Zach Crizer
·10 min read

On Tuesday night, Major League Baseball and the players union agreed upon the health protocols and rules of play that will help them attempt a 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it is really feasible or advisable or ethical to try, the document is a testament to the ridiculous amount of change necessary to facilitate the “safe” playing of a baseball season.

In the way only a legal-ish document can, it spells out details huge and minuscule, obvious and obscure. If baseball does happen this year, it will be because thousands of people — perhaps even those who might have wished to opt out — followed a plan that re-engineered their lives from the ground up.

Yahoo Sports obtained the manual, about 100 pages long, and sought out some of the many ways the game will be vastly, intentionally different. The plan will cause massive changes to players’ routines, visually jarring tweaks to the game on the field, economic fallout and could even stir teams to stockpile towels. Here are some of the highlights.

In players’ daily lives

With the coronavirus spreading rapidly across much of the country, the first focus is monitoring and containing the pandemic’s intrusion into the sport’s ranks. It’s unclear if this is even a possible task, but the document lays out the procedures the league will attempt to implement.

It will quite literally be the first thing every player, coach, trainer and umpire thinks about each morning.

MLB will provide each Covered Individual with a personal oral digital thermometer to perform a primary self-screen each morning, via a mobile application designated by MLB, before leaving his or her residence (the “Home Screen”).

The danger for MLB, as has already been laid bare by the NWSL’s Orlando Pride, is just how much players devote themselves to preventative measures, and how well they resist the temptation to go to a bar or crowded church service in a country where government regulations are too lax to ensure the level of safety needed to play professional sports. Notably, in a stark contrast with the NBA’s bubble approach, MLB is not handing down a uniform set of expectations beyond basic precautions, instead allowing teams to create codes of conduct for their players away from the park.

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. All written codes of conduct will be provided to the Joint Committee and should include specific rules regarding what conduct is and is not allowed while the Club is on the road. MLB will not be involved in the crafting or enforcement of any of these team-specific codes of conduct.

Even the clubhouse lounge time embedded in baseball’s usual rhythms will look different in some dramatic ways.

FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 8: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox plays ping pong in the clubhouse before a team workout on March 8, 2017 at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida . (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Clubhouse ping pong games, like the one Mookie Betts is seen playing here in his Red Sox days, might not be allowed. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Perhaps this will come as a relief to the players: Teams will have at least some flexibility with recreational items, as the plan calls for the “prohibition, removal, or regular disinfecting” of those things, which the manual helpfully enumerates.

(e.g., ping-pong paddles, billiards cues, foosball tables, playing cards, dominoes, dice, game controllers).

On the field

That shorthand e.g. stands for the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means “for example.” It’s legalese for, “Here come some almost normal words to illuminate how jargon in the previous sentence applies to real life.” Objectively speaking, the best deployment of an e.g. parenthetical in the manual is this one:

Multiple pitchers should avoid throwing bullpens at the same time unless necessary in-game (e.g., double-barrel action in the bullpen).

It’s not an example of multiple pitchers throwing in a bullpen during a game — which is deeply self-explanatory — but a tossed-off phrase cribbed from every announcer in the history of time to simply evoke the event that is excepted from the rule. It is a wink at the known, dynamic world in the staid black and white nothing of the code.

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 20: Marcus Stroman #0 and Rick Porcello #22 of the New York Mets warm up in the bullpen during the team workout at Clover Park on February 20, 2020 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Warming up in the same bullpen will be allowed, but only when absolutely necessary during games. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Players not likely to participate in a given game’s action will be sitting somewhere other than the dugout, but they will not be slumming it like a bleacher bum.

Inactive players may sit in auxiliary seating areas designated by the Club, including in the stands, provided they are spaced out to allow for at least six feet of personal space and have adequate shelter from weather, including sun, wind, and precipitation (with fans or other means of temperature control if practicable). The same restrictions on conduct (e.g., use of personal electronic devices) that apply to players in the dugout apply to players sitting in any auxiliary seating area.

In a nod to the Astros cheating scandal that was once the existential crisis staring baseball in the face — quaint — there are also rules of the new reality that keep players (Tier 1 Individuals) away from live video technology.

Replay Rooms. As non-Restricted Areas occupied by Tier 3 Individuals, replay rooms are off limits to Tier 1 Individuals at all times.

Also, away from conflict.

Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.

As part of recommendations that also call for fielders to keep their distance from baserunners and for baseballs to be cycled out of play when touched by multiple players, a small, friendly moment of camaraderie will be disappearing: Teammates won’t be allowed to deliver caps and gloves to batters who make the last out or are on the bases when an inning ends. Restrictions on touching the same surfaces make this an unnecessary risk, but it might take some time to turn that extra dugout trip into habit.

After batting, players must retrieve their own equipment (e.g., fielding glove, baseball cap, sunglasses) from the dugout prior to taking the field, and should not have teammates, coaches, or other staff retrieve or toss them.

A brief word on towels

Speaking of equipment, it seems there will be more towels required in 2020.

Leaning on the dugout railing or ledges is discouraged, but permissible provided individuals use a clean towel as a barrier between themselves and the railing or ledge.

And also a more than healthy interest in pitchers’ back pockets.

Wet Rag for Pitchers. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in OBR 6.02 (“Pitcher Illegal Action”), all pitchers may carry a small wet rag in their back pocket to be used for moisture in lieu of licking their fingers. Water is the only substance allowed on the rag. Pitchers may not access the rag while on the pitching rubber and must clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate. Umpires will have the right to check the rag at any point.

In the park

Among the world-building language that isn’t likely showing up in your Twitter timeline or in newspapers is the decision on just how functional typical stadium functions will be. Will scoreboard operators work as usual? At some limited capacity? (Mostly normal.)

The reasoning isn’t terribly important, but it sure would be interesting to know why electronic ads will remain useful outside of the ones behind the plate that are seen on TV broadcasts.

Ribbon boards or other LED board displays may be used for sponsor signage/branding if they can be operated with existing scoreboard personnel who already have a required Scoreboard Operations assignment; the same rule applies to the display of out-of-town scores. … Music, audio, and public announcements remain permitted.

Also in the “But why?” category … mascots.

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.

On the ledger

Teams have to designate 60 players in their organization to attend the second “spring training” and generally be their talent pool for the season. The result of a months-long, very public labor negotiation was that players in the majors will be paid prorated salaries based on the number of games in the season.

Not so clear without the manual: The compensation for players who aren’t major leaguers, but whose readiness will be required to backfill the team in the case of normal injuries or dreaded, but already occurring, infections.

Players on the Taxi Squad will not receive Major League service and will be paid at the Minor League rate contained in their UPC; provided, however, that all players on the Taxi Squad shall be entitled to Major League allowances of $108.50 per day while the Club is on the road, regardless of whether the Club provides meals.

The minor leaguers on the taxi squad — including some top prospects for many teams — will simply continue making minor-league salaries, with an allowance thrown in.

For those called up — as Toronto Blue Jays flamethrower Nate Pearson is expected to be this season, for instance — their service time will accumulate on a prorated basis, just like major-league salaries.

That means service-time manipulation just got condensed into an even shorter window, potentially making it easier for clubs to withstand the public pressure and shame associated with … intentionally holding back great young players to save money.

And before this tense new attempt at baseball gets off the ground next week, the players will take part in a ritual of American corporate life: The educational video.

All players must complete COVID-19 education prior to reporting to Spring Training and on an ongoing basis throughout the course of Spring Training and the 2020 championship season.

Watch carefully, gentlemen. The safe operation of a very delicate society within society could depend on it.

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