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'A disaster waiting to happen': MLB plan for 60-game season sparks concern

John Axford loses track when trying to recall the number of people he would come into contact with in a typical day as a Major League Baseball player.
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John Axford loses track when trying to recall the number of people he would come into contact with in a typical day as a Major League Baseball player.

There's the doorman he sees as he leaves his hotel, the restaurant staff that serves him lunch, the taxi driver that takes him to the stadium and the security guards who greet him when he gets there — and that's all before he steps foot into a clubhouse full of players, coaches, trainers and staff.

Axford, a former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher from Port Dover, Ont., said he wasn't surprised to hear of MLB's plan to return with a 60-game regular season. But even if the league tries to reduce the number of interactions between its players and the outside world, Axford's not convinced a season can safely begin during a pandemic.

"Your interactions (with other people) are quite numerous within a day, there are a lot of people involved," Axford said from his Burlington, Ont., home. 

"It would be great if something could happen here and baseball could come back — but not at the expense of public health."

MLB announced its return plan Tuesday in a statement that called the health and safety of its players and employees its "foremost priorities."

New ground rules mean no spitting or high-fiving on the field, physically distant locker stalls and daily temperature and symptom checks.

Players would report to training camps July 1 with the season starting July 23 or 24.

Unlike the NHL and NBA, which are planning games in either one large complex or in hub cities, MLB will play in home stadiums and travel for road games against division rivals and teams in other cities within relative proximity. There will be no fans in attendance.

Toronto, the lone MLB team north of the currently closed Canada-U.S. border, is still hashing out details for its training site and home games. The Blue Jays have asked the Canadian government for permission to use Rogers Centre and are awaiting a decision.

But before they can start training, they need to get healthy. That goes for all teams.

High-profile athletes have been testing positive for COVID-19 at an alarming rate this week. News trickled in within an hour of MLB's announcement that Charlie Blackmon, a four-time Colorado Rockies all-star, had tested positive along with two of his teammates. There was word the following afternoon that several players and staff of the Blue Jays were infected.

Axford, a former teammate of Blackmon's in 2015, said he was surprised the baseball world wasn't rocked by COVID-19 earlier, considering some players have been working out at spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona — two states hit exceptionally hard by the virus.

The Blue Jays' spring training field in Dunedin, Fla., may be their home base this summer if they're unable to play in Toronto. But even if they can avoid a home stadium in Florida, they'll presumably still fly into Tampa to play against the division-rival Rays.

Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control physician with the University Health Network, said Florida is the "worst place, perhaps in the whole world, to have any kind of event right now." 

The fact that COVID cases are already mounting among players makes MLB's return "a disaster waiting to happen," he added. 

"That's not to say that (athletes) are going to have terrible outcomes, most young people don't. But what's it going to take?" Vaisman said. "If 100 baseball players are infected and one of them has a bad outcome and goes to the ICU ... is that what it's going to take for people to realized that this isn't feasible?"

Axford, who became a free agent at the end of last season, has his doubts about some of the new safety measures MLB hopes to implement.

He says players often spit or lick their fingertips between plays instinctively, and keeping physical distance in a clubhouse will depend on how big the space is to begin with. Some visiting locker-rooms across the league, like Boston's Fenway Park, don't lend themselves well to proper spacing.

Close proximity between teammates can lead to quick spreading of a virus, Axford said, recalling "plenty of times" during the last 10 years of his career when a common cold or flu would proliferate in that setting.

While the league's precautions against a COVID-19 outbreak are expected to be stringent, Axford still worries how they will play out in a clubhouse.

"You can stagger kitchen visits I suppose, cut down on things like guys playing cards, spread guys out when they play video games, but then there is that camaraderie that you're losing," he said.  "All those pieces are part of that team component, creating that atmosphere that you want.

"So it will look a lot different and feel a lot different."

Vaisman says a safe return is possible, but it would involve "near perfection" from leagues to block off everyone involved from the outside world.

He sees the travel portion of MLB's plan as a major downfall, potentially bringing the virus to and from other locations.

"The whole point of lockdown is to try to prevent transmission through minimizing contact with other people and this just adds to it," he said.

"Not only is it not safe for those players, it's also not safe for those cities."

So why are pro sports leagues trying to take that risk, especially now when parts of the U.S. are still seeing surges in the first wave of the pandemic?

Laurel Walzak, an assistant professor of sports media and sports business at Ryerson University in Toronto, says the decisions will likely come down to economics.

And that's more than just revenue.

"Leagues have outstanding obligations to broadcasters, to various stakeholders and sponsors, to the players' contracts that are very complex," Walzak said. "So there's a lot to take into consideration.

"And it's also about getting back to work, and not just players. There's staff, officials, broadcasters, lots of people."

Wade Wilson, a mental performance consultant and a lecturer at the University of Waterloo who specializes in the morality of sport, said that while economic pressure might be the catalyst for sports to return, players will have a big role in ensuring safety.

"It has to come down to each individual making the right choices every day in terms of quarantining and taking the right precautions," he said. "But I think it can safely happen."

A COVID-19 outbreak within a team may mean shutting down once again, something Walzak said leagues have to be prepared for.

And while she said professional teams tend to have the structural organization needed to provide proper testing, cleaning and sanitizing, there is still concern in starting up too quickly.

"It's going to be day by day," she said. "I don't think you can look at this and say 100 per cent everyone's going to finish their season.

"I want them to and I'm usually a glass half-full type person ... but the fact that athletes are starting to test positive, it's a little bit concerning."

Leagues have missed parts of or entire seasons in the past, like in 2004-05 when the NHL campaign was cancelled due to a lockout, and in 1994 when a strike scrapped the end of the MLB season. The 1919 Stanley Cup playoffs were also suspended after an outbreak of the Spanish flu.

So the precedent is there if sports don't return, Wilson said, and perhaps they should be looking into 2021 instead.

"There's revenue downfall but from a health standpoint and a moral standpoint, what would be the harm of not having sports this year?" Wilson said.

"All this time and resources put into (figuring out) a condensed season could go into making sure they're ready for anything that happens next year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2020.

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press




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