It was an aside that Twins fans all over Minnesota could relate to. Amid a press briefing on the state’s efforts to fight coronavirus, answering a question about testing capacity, Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the state’s Department of Health, voiced the frustration that sports fans everywhere feel during this pandemic.
“I sure miss having [Twins games] as a recreational thing to look forward to,” Malcolm said.
Major League Baseball is taking steps to address that craving. On Saturday, the sport’s detailed plans to address player safety during what it hopes will be a captivating, if shortened, 2020 season, leaked to several national media outlets.
The blueprint makes clear that baseball in these unprecedented conditions will look strange and may feel foreign, but also that MLB believes that games can be played without spreading the virus.
The players union and MLB’s team owners must agree to safety protocols and financial arrangements before spring camps can open by the league’s mid-June target.
MLB’s proposal, according to ESPN, envisions keeping players separate as much as possible and masked everywhere but on the field, with restrictions on who can be in the dugout and where they can sit or stand, plus changes to everything from pregame meetings (hold them online or outside) to postgame showers (not at the ballpark, please) and meals (in individual containers, not a buffet spread).
Baseballs touched by more than one or two players would be discarded, and pitchers would be issued their own set of baseballs to warm up with.
Mostly, the plan emphasizes constant and universal coronavirus testing for everyone at the ballpark, with immediate quarantine for anyone who tests positive. MLB has contracted with a Utah firm to collect hundreds of samples each day and return results within 24 hours; players and staff would also have their temperature taken each day to help identity possible carriers.
Stadiums will be empty except for essential personnel — primarily players, staff, medical workers and trainers, clubhouse attendants, groundskeepers and security members — and the teams will emphasize social distancing, even during games. Players not in the games would be asked to sit behind the dugout, six feet apart.
Malcolm, speaking before MLB’s safety guidelines became public, said one of her biggest worries about sports returning is the potential for spreading the virus from city to city.
“Teams would be obviously moving all over the country to play their schedules. That’s just not something that we’re seeing the rest of the economy prepared to do, or many citizens traveling around,” Malcolm said. “We’re still, from a national perspective, emphasizing minimizing travel while case counts are still rising across the country. So I would have a little bit of concern just about that.”
MLB hopes to address those concerns by asking traveling team members to stay inside their hotel when not at the ballpark, and avoid using taxis or ride-share apps.
“MLB will not formally restrict the activities of covered individuals when they are away from work, but will expect the members of each team to ensure that they all act responsibly,” the guidelines say. “The careless actions of a single member of the team places the entire team [and their families] at risk.”
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said this past week that players who are uncomfortable with playing during a pandemic will not be required to do so.
If the Twins do get to play — Major League Baseball is hoping for a July 4th weekend opener — Target Field’s stands will be vacant, like all ballparks around the country. That’s not likely to change in 2020, Malcolm said.
“We haven’t had enough discussion yet about what we need to be prepared for in terms of subsequent waves, potentially, of the virus as more and more relaxation of restrictions happens around the country. [Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz] has said, we need to build our planning around living with this for quite some period of time, “ Malcolm said Friday.
“So sadly, I don’t envision seeing full stadiums any time this year.”