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MLB players consider owners' 60-game proposal with unwelcome third party interrupting talks — the virus

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Cardinals prepare for the Nats at Busch

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller throws on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, during a practice session before Friday's start of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

As part of his role as an infectious disease expert in the pediatrics department at Washington University School of Medicine, Dr. Jason Newland has actively researched and advised what policies must be in place as schools resume classes following the coronavirus crisis. He agreed that Major League Baseball, when or if it returns, has many similarities to players coming and going to a ballpark like students coming and going from a classroom.

Teams are effectively schools on wheels.

“Elementary schools,” Dr. Newland clarified. “You have to keep them close together, like an elementary school class that starts the day together, stays together, eats lunch together, and goes home. If you keep that group together, you know where the group goes, and you know the group that is safe.”

While Major League Baseball and its players roil headlines with their negotiations on the season and irritate traditionalists with the invitation of the DH to the National League and carnival twists to extra innings, both sides were reminded this weekend of the obvious: The real challenge to starting a 2020 season isn’t labor strife, it’s always been the virus.

At least five teams have revealed at least one positive test for COVID-19 at their spring training facility, and MLB moved swiftly Friday to close and cleanse all spring training facilities after an outbreak at Phillies camp included five players, with others still undergoing testing.

Members of the union’s executive subcommittee, which includes Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller and St. Louis native and Washington ace Max Scherzer, had discussions Saturday about the owners’ proposal for a 60-game season at full, prorated salary. A response could be imminent, but USA Today reported Saturday that the players decided to take a few days to gather additional information on health and safety plans — especially as cases of the virus spike to record numbers in the states baseball calls home for spring training, Arizona and Florida.

Throughout the process, Miller has stressed the players’ insistence on having comprehensive and clear health protocols in place for them and their families before a return to play. He reiterated that this past week to the Post-Dispatch, describing any health policies as an “evolving document” that adjusts to trends and new data. The virus arriving at facilities this past week has heightened concerns and reinforced the key element of any agreed upon practices.

It will take the commitment and discipline of the players.

“I think it’s a monumental task,” Dr. Newland said. “Can baseball come back safely? Yes, it can. But you have to have maximum control. Are 20-year-old and 30-year-old men going to stay in all the time? If they move (from city to city) as a group, how do you do that? How do you keep them together? And when they are out, do they have social distance? Do they have masks? They can’t go walking into a bar.

“You can control it,” he added. “You can have a system in place. As you add other circles of people, it gets more complicated. The safety thing is to keep the people together.”

The players responded to the owners’ 60-game proposal with a 70-game proposal that was not accepted, and Major League Baseball confirmed there would be no counterproposal. The commissioner can impose a schedule on the players of any length — one around 52 or 54 games has been mentioned — as long as they are paid a full prorated, by game, salary. Outside of the pay and length of the season, there are aspects of agreement reflected in the volleys of proposals:

• The players and owners have agreed on an expanded postseason format, from 10 to 16.

• The players and owners have been accepting of advertisements on jerseys, expanded rosters, and the designated hitter in the NL.

• Both sides have also eyed June 26 as the possible start date for preseason workouts, meaning players would begin arrival and entry testing early this week.

On Saturday, USA Today and others reported that details of the current proposals include an agreement on changing extra-inning play for 2020 to have a runner start at second base in extra innings and that ties could be allowed to limit the time spent at a ballpark. Owners also want the complete season to conclude before November.

The limited time at the ballpark and narrow calendar for the season have roots in suggestions MLB has received from its medical experts.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, “is out there telling us that football should (be) playing in a quarantine,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told The Associated Press this past week. “The other two sports (NBA and NHL) are playing in quarantine. Our guys want nothing to do with that.”

Less than two months after workshopping the idea of confining teams to Arizona and Florida for the season, MLB urged teams to leave those states if possible and hold their preseason workouts at their home ballparks. The Cardinals received permission to do that weeks ago, and their initial proposal to do so was tied to being present and a part of St. Louis’ reopening. On Saturday, New York’s governor announced that the Yankees and Mets would be returning to the city for their preseason workouts.

MLB had discussed locating all teams in once place, such as the Disney “bubble” plan employed currently by the NBA. Baseball had also looked into the city-hub concept with a few specific locations. That would have opened up the possibility of Missouri, with its coronavirus trends, being considered. But increasingly, owners and players wanted to be at their home ballparks, if permitted by those cities and countries — and for baseball to figure out a way to move a many-footed beast safely from place to place.

“The virus is everywhere,” Dr. Newland said. “Percolating along.”

He added: Tight protocols have to go everywhere, too.

On Saturday, The New York Post reported that four members of the Yankees organization at the Tampa facility had tested positive for coronavirus. None of them were players. The Yankees joined the Phillies and Blue Jays — two other teams that train in the Tampa area — as having positive tests. The Angels also revealed to reporters they had at least two players test positive. The Giants and Astros also had positive tests. Players and staff members are not being identified by teams citing medical privacy. As of Friday, the Cardinals did not have any positive tests among baseball-affiliated staff or any players currently in quarantine, an official confirmed.

The beginning of any health plan that will allow baseball to start a 2020 season is widespread and persistent testing. As Dr. Newland described “in a world of unlimited testing, everybody would be tested before leaving their home.”

More than a month ago, Major League Baseball authored a health plan that separated ballpark personnel and people peripheral to the games into three tiers, and the level and amount of testing was most robust at the top tier, which included players. John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations, has throughout the past two months always added the necessity of testing to any comments about baseball’s return.

He made the point that baseball had to determine, clearly, what happened with a positive test because quarantining an entire team would bring the schedule to a halt. It’s like the elementary school example — eventually the class has to go outside to play a game, and if it can’t then what do the other classes do?

There are plenty of analogies, plenty of questions, and still multiplying concerns.

“There’s no GPS for a pandemic,” Mozeliak has said.

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