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Discipline in a pandemic might be the ultimate competitive advantage in MLB

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Major League Baseball’s plan to play through a public health crisis is outlined in a handbook that encompasses more than 100 pages, every single one of which emphasizes the notion that professional baseball in 2020 will be unlike anything anybody has ever experienced. Players are advised to wear sandals in the shower and close airplane toilet lids before flushing and open windows on buses. Spitting and high-fiving are disallowed, clean towels must be utilized when leaning on dugout railings and pitchers should keep wet rags in their back pockets to prevent them from licking their fingers.

And yet, in spite of the exhaustive detail in baseball’s operations manual, the fate of this season — if there ultimately is one — will hinge on the countless choices made by hundreds of people in dozens of locations on an everyday basis. It will come down to discipline and accountability, not instruction and protocol. In the words of one veteran infielder: “The team that has the fewest positive cases is gonna win the World Series.”

It was a hyperbolic statement meant to emphasize a key point about the reality of this summer: In a 60-game season littered with unconventionality — during which any team, regardless of payroll and talent, can go on a run and win it all — the only true competitive advantage might lie in one’s ability to field the most complete roster possible.

Nearly 3 million Americans had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, resulting in more than 130,000 deaths, when teams officially began workouts on Friday morning. Thirty-eight states had experienced a rise in cases by that point. COVID-19 spreads quickly and easily, oftentimes as a result of contact with carriers who might never experience symptoms. Avoiding a spread that would further jeopardize public health, might endanger more vulnerable members of an organization and, of far lesser importance, threaten MLB’s ability to stage a season will take monk-like discipline from those who are classified in the league’s health and safety protocols as being in Tiers 1 and 2, a list that can encompass as many as 3,750 people among the 30 teams.

Can they — specifically the young, wealthy, single players with higher risk tolerances — do it?

Can they maintain the day-to-day, second-to-second focus required to avoid close contact and avoid positive tests for a period of at least 12 weeks, all while balancing the ability to perform their jobs at the highest level?

“I think they’ll be good about it in the beginning, but after that …,” a long-time front-office executive wrote in a text message.

“This is going to be tough for everybody,” Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong.”

Joe Maddon, the Los Angeles Angels‘ 66-year-old manager, believes it will all come down to mindset. He wants his players to get comfortable with the idea of being inconvenienced.

“Know that, accept that, wear that every day, and you’ll be able to deal with it,” Maddon said. “If you want to come in accepting the norm that we’re normally accustomed to, then you’re going to be frustrated constantly, and you can’t permit that to happen. You just can’t permit that to happen.”

That responsibility, Angels general manager Billy Eppler said, falls on everyone who is included in two of the first three tiers outlined in baseball’s operations manual, all of whom will be in constant contact. The list is made up of mostly players, but it also includes coaches, physicians, trainers, therapists, front-office executives, security personnel and clubhouse staff, among others. The Angels removed the sofas from their clubhouse, leaving only the chairs that sit in front of individual lockers. Eppler wants his players to “think about the clubhouse as more of a closet.”

“It’s just where clothes hang,” he said. “Absent of anything you need to do in the athletic training room, or absent of anything you need to do in the weight room, get outside.”

Players will be tested for COVID-19 every other day and will receive symptom checks at least twice daily. Their food will be individually packaged, their batting-practice baseballs will constantly be replaced and every aspect of their team’s facility will be set up to promote social distancing — from the lockers to the dining area to the dugouts, which will include markings advising them where to sit.

But it will be up to all team employees to wear masks any time they’re off the field and keep at least six feet of separation at every moment possible, from the moment they arrive at the park to when they leave. Otherwise, they’ll be on their own. They’ll go home to their loved ones, who must show similar restraint. Or — because MLB didn’t implement a bubble environment like the NBA, or establish two hub cities like the NHL — they’ll be on the road, constantly fighting the urge to congregate in restaurants, bars or nightclubs.

“It’s just not worth the risk,” Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “It’s easier for me to say it, obviously. I have a wife and three kids. I can just go from home and to the ballpark and feel great about it. But it’s gonna be harder for guys that are single and are living in apartments and things like that. I understand that. But if you wanna get things off the ground, if you wanna play, that’s as good an incentive as any to do the right thing.”

Those who test positive for COVID-19 can’t return to a team facility until they test negative on two separate tests, taken at least 24 hours apart, and are fever-free, without the use of fever suppressants, for at least 72 hours. But there’s also a subsequent contact-tracing investigation that must take place, whereby anyone who has come in close contact with the individual must undergo a diagnostic test.

And then there’s this: Results for routine tests won’t be available for at least 24 hours, a time during which asymptomatic people could infect others without knowing it. Those results took far longer during the first week, putting teams in a scenario where they were either cancelling workouts or forcing players to congregate without knowing if they were carrying the virus.

Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant recently referenced incidents when players went as many as nine days between getting a follow-up test and receiving the results from it.

“If we want this to succeed,” Bryant said, “we have to figure this out.”

Baseball can often feel like an encapsulation of America, and it’s no different amid a pandemic. Some players are eager to resume playing and don’t believe the fear of contracting coronavirus should prevent them from doing so, a point illustrated by Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed when he said, “You can’t just hide out in your house and hibernate your whole life.” Others, most notably Mike Trout and Buster Posey, have expressed serious trepidation.

In that realm lies the concept of wearing a mask, a simple precaution that has morphed into a charged political issue. Most will undoubtedly recognize the importance. But many others might not, which is why teams are hoping their players will simply get competitive with the idea of following the strict protocols that will help prevent an outbreak. If not for the betterment of public health, if not for coworkers who might be at a higher risk, if not for a reeling economy that can’t fully recover until cases flatten, then do it because it might be the reason your team wins the World Series.

Do it because it’s the only hope baseball has of existing in 2020.

“If you happen to get the virus and you’re doing everything the right way, that’s one thing,” Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “But if you’re doing things that you shouldn’t be doing and you get sick, then you’re going to have to answer to a clubhouse full of guys.”

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