A’s, Gi­ants ready to play ball amid patch­work of trust is­sues

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - ANN KILLION

Base­ball is back! Maybe!

Get ready for: odes to the na­tional pas­time, paeans on how base­ball can bind us to­gether, will be a wel­come dis­trac­tion, is a sym­bol of unity and hope, an il­lus­tra­tion of nor­malcy.

Also get ready for: an­other pos­si­ble shut­down.

Base­ball may cer­tainly be a sym­bol. How­ever, it may be less an em­blem of hope and more an il­lus­tra­tion of how money comes be­fore health, of how a push to get back to “nor­mal” has been dic­tated by fi­nances and not science.

The A’s and the Gi­ants will be­gin “Spring Train­ing 2.0” at their re­spec­tive ball­parks in the com­ing week. In the­ory, a 60­game base­ball sea­son will be­gin in about three weeks, on July 23 or 24.

But if we have learned any­thing in 2020, it’s that ev­ery­thing can change in the course

of one week, let alone three.

Coro­n­avirus numbers are spik­ing around the coun­try. The cur­rent hot spots in­volve a third of Ma­jor League Base­ball mar­kets: Cal­i­for­nia (five teams), Ari­zona (one team), Texas (two teams) and Florida (two teams). In­stead of be­ing un­der con­trol, the num­ber of cases is grow­ing, par­tic­u­larly among young peo­ple.

The Amer­i­can sports world ef­fec­tively shut down in midMarch when one pro­fes­sional ath­lete tested pos­i­tive. Now the sports world is plan­ning to re­open with dozens of play­ers across all sports dis­ci­plines test­ing pos­i­tive.

Base­ball al­ready has had about 50 coro­n­avirus cases among play­ers and staff. The Phillies had 12 con­firmed cases and other teams, in­clud­ing the Red Sox, Tigers, Mariners, Dodgers, Twins and Yan­kees, have re­ported pos­i­tive tests within their or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Gi­ants have re­ported no cases. An A’s mi­nor­league coach spent two months in an ICU with the coro­n­avirus, but when asked by The Chron­i­cle if there were other pos­i­tive cases, gen­eral man­ager David Forst did not answer, cit­ing pri­vacy is­sues.

Ma­jor League Base­ball re­leased a 113­page “2020 Op­er­a­tions Man­ual” that de­tails all sorts of pro­to­cols about clean­li­ness and so­cial dis­tanc­ing: dis­in­fect­ing base­balls, no spit­ting, no hugs.

But by far the most in­ter­est­ing pro­to­col is the sec­tion where there is none.

In the sec­tion la­beled “Con­duct out­side of Club Fa­cil­i­ties” — or as we like to call it, “life” — there are no in­struc­tions for play­ers. Just some vague rec­om­men­da­tions to be care­ful, to avoid be­ing around large groups or in close prox­im­ity to oth­ers. MLB states that it won’t for­mally reg­u­late play­ers and other team mem­bers when they are away from the fa­cil­i­ties but ex­pects every­one to act re­spon­si­bly.

In other words, it’s the honor sys­tem, folks.

Other leagues, such as the NBA and Ma­jor League Soc­cer, are at­tempt­ing to open in some kind of iso­la­tion bub­ble, and there is skepticism that even that will work be­cause staff will be com­ing and go­ing.

For base­ball, teams will be open­ing in their own ball­parks. Play­ers will be liv­ing at home. Rou­tines will eas­ily be re­sumed. As we’ve seen around the coun­try, hu­mans don’t seem to have a lot of pa­tience for mak­ing sac­ri­fices or chang­ing their rou­tines.

Base­ball teams can have as many as 60 play­ers at spring train­ing and ac­tive ros­ters, when the sea­son starts, as large as 30. Plus coaches and other staff. That means dozens of peo­ple in each mar­ket, many of them young men in their 20s, are ex­pected to do the right thing, so­cially dis­tance, wash hands, don’t go out in groups.

Will this be dif­fi­cult? Un­doubt­edly. The Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League be­gan its sea­son Satur­day with a tour­na­ment for­mat in Salt Lake City. Just days be­fore the event was to be­gin, one team, the Or­lando Pride, had to with­draw be­cause of the high num­ber of pos­i­tive coro­n­avirus tests. The Or­lando Sen­tinel re­ported the test­ing was done be­cause groups of play­ers had gone to a bar.

John Swartzberg, an in­fec­tious dis­ease ex­pert at UC Berke­ley, said that at least pro­fes­sional ath­letes are mo­ti­vated by a pay­check.

“They are in­cen­tivized to be­have,” Swartzberg said. “I’m more wor­ried about col­lege play­ers.

“But, over­all, I’m quite skep­ti­cal that any of th­ese play­ers are go­ing to do what is nec­es­sary to pro­tect them­selves.”

MLB’S Op­er­a­tions Man­ual also di­rects teams to in­di­vid­u­ally craft spe­cific rules on ac­cept­able con­duct when they are on the road and states that the league will not be in­volved in cre­at­ing or en­forc­ing any spe­cific codes of con­duct.

So, in that way base­ball ac­tu­ally will be a na­tional sym­bol: for a dis­jointed, piece­meal pol­icy that may prove as in­ef­fec­tive at con­trol­ling out­breaks of the virus as our fed­eral ap­proach has been. Teams are left to craft in­di­vid­ual poli­cies. Em­ploy­ees are ex­pected to han­dle things them­selves. Ev­ery mar­ket will be dif­fer­ent.

Some teams may get to have fans in at­ten­dance while other teams — hello Cal­i­for­nia! — will not have any fans, cre­at­ing a dis­tinctly un­level play­ing en­vi­ron­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence.

For ex­am­ple, Astros owner Jim Crane an­nounced that he needed rev­enue and the only way he can counter his losses is “get some peo­ple in the build­ing and sell some tick­ets, some mer­chan­dise, some cold beer, what­ever they’d like to have.”

Woohoo! Let the good times roll for the team em­broiled in a cheat­ing scan­dal.

Yet cases are spik­ing so se­verely in Texas, in­clud­ing the Hous­ton area, that the gov­er­nor has paused re­open­ing. There is a be­lief that a ban on large gath­er­ings may have to go back into ef­fect. So why can’t MLB just in­sti­tute that ban so that ev­ery­thing is even? Be­cause the own­ers want to make money.

The con­cept of a team­byteam pro­to­col for trav­el­ing on the road, and an in­di­vid­ual­byin­di­vid­ual pro­to­col for safe be­hav­ior ev­ery day is in­ter­est­ing in a sport whose very foun­da­tion has been rocked by vir­u­lent, unchecked mis­trust on both sides.

To get through this pan­demic in any part of so­ci­ety, to have a chance against this in­vis­i­ble con­ta­gion, the chal­lenges have to be con­fronted with the spirit of unity, co­op­er­a­tion and trust.

Yet after months of base­ball own­ers and play­ers bash­ing each other, we now ex­pect that play­ers will fall in line with team pro­to­cols and teams will trust play­ers to do the right thing?

In a world where trust is ab­so­lutely needed, that’s the one thing we know for cer­tain that base­ball lacks.

So, play ball! (Maybe.)

Alex Trautwig / MLB Pho­tos

The San Francisco Gi­ants work out in their first spring train­ing, in Fe­bru­ary at Scotts­dale Sta­dium in Ari­zona.

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