Trying to keep it clean
Giants’, A’s coronavirus cops under immense pressure
Quick: What’s the most important position on a baseball team?
Catcher? Closer? DH? Ivy League stats guy crunching numbers? All wrong. The most important position on any team right now is the ICPC.
What? Haven’t heard of it? Well, that might be because the job didn’t exist until a few weeks ago, when it was created as part of the extensive protocols for this bizarre 2020 baseball season.
But now, in the season of coronavirus, the Infection Control Prevention Coordinator could be the key to getting this shortened season off the ground and to having it continue with any semblance of smoothness.
“It’s a huge job,” A’s general manager David Forst said.
The A’s appointed Tony Leo, who has nine years of experience as an athletic trainer with the Minnesota Twins. A newcomer to Oakland, he was supposed to be with the Triplea team in Las Vegas and was actually furloughed when he was tapped for the critical position.
Forst thinks it will work to Leo’s advantage that he’s new to the team.
“The greatest epidemiologists in the world can’t figure this out. Yet this is falling on an assistant trainer.”
Stan Conte, former head trainer for both the Giants and the Dodgers
“He has a little bit of an outsider presence,” Forst said, “which will be helpful because he has to play the authoritarian role.”
The Giants picked L.J. Petra, an assistant athletic trainer who had been in the organization for 12 years. He previously served as the minorleague medical coordinator, a role that showcased his organization and attention to detail.
“We know how important this person is going to be,” said Giants head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner.
Both men, neither of whom was made available to interview for this story, will work closely with the existing team training and medical staff.
The descriptors “huge” and “important” might be understatements for this new position. The job description, as laid out in “Attachment 2” near the end of the 113page “2020 Operations Manual” for baseball’s new protocol, is daunting.
Required to be hired from existing staff, the job calls for “an effective and empowered” individual who will monitor and enforce compliance with MLB infectioncontrol protocols. The 10 bulletpoint job description includes: developing a reporting system for noncompliance, investigating and correcting noncompliance, regular meetings with players and staff, developing and executing training and education programs, monitoring regular cleaning and disinfecting of facilities, confirming availability of cleaning supplies and PPE and serving as a resource for all individuals.
The job requirements recommend experience in health care and “certification in infection control and epidemiology.”
“I don’t think any team in the league has a person that covers all those things,” Groeschner said. “A lot of this is learning on the fly and continuing to learn. The league is helping and is providing a lot of resources. But having one person in house that knows all that stuff ? Those people don’t really exist.”
Stan Conte, former head trainer for both the Giants and the Dodgers, read the job description of the ICPC — “Someone must have had some good Scotch when they came up with that name,” he cracked — and all the accompanying protocols that MLB devised. He has some serious concerns. Although the protocols check all the boxes on how to deal with the coronavirus, ticking off points on a document and executing them in real life are two different things.
“I think MLB really tried,” said Conte, who retired from the Dodgers in 2016, after 25 seasons in the major leagues, and later worked as a consultant to baseball. “But it’s nearly impossible to do what they’re asking.
“The greatest epidemiologists in the world can’t figure this out. Yet this is falling on an assistant trainer. There’s a lot of variability in regard to the education people in those jobs have. You’re asking this person for a lot, with hardly any time.”
Conte is concerned how the protocols will be enforced not only in a team’s home ballpark, but at a team’s satellite facility and also on the road, once games begin. Visiting clubhouses tend to be small and cramped. After a few weeks of being diligent, players might revert to old habits.
If the testing system breaks down, as it already has, what then? What happens if a player, who already has traveled on a plane and through a hotel lobby with all his teammates, becomes unwell?
“You’ll be in the dark with no flashlight,” Conte said. “I think there are too many holes, and I don’t think they can plug them.”
Conte isn’t sure how, if players revert to behavior deemed unsafe, the ICPC will be able to control noncompliance. He thinks some atrisk people will be unwilling to share their medical history for fear of being sidelined. He wonders what will happen if a star player has a slight fever on the day of a big game. Will the staff be willing to overlook a red flag?
We know, as does Conte from his years of experience, that type of thing happens all the time when it comes to injuries. Why wouldn’t the same pressures be in play with the coronavirus?
The ICPC is expected to be the enforcer. Which also can mean the ICPC could end up being the scapegoat if something goes wrong. Those kinds of details, of course, are not included in the 2020 Operation Manual.
“This person is going to be under incredible pressure, 247,” Conte said.
He would like to see baseball pull this off. But the man who spent a quarter century in majorleague clubhouses and training rooms is skeptical.
“This is fantasyland,” Conte said. “They’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s an impossible task. And the blame will go downstream.”
Likely to the ICPC, the most important position in baseball.
The Giants go through a recent workout at Oracle Park. They will have to answer to assistant trainer L.J. Petra on matters of pandemic protocol.
Tyler Heineman (left) elbow bumps instead of highfiving and is wearing a mask as a way to prevent getting the coronavirus.
A’s ICPC Tony Leo, left, and Giants counterpart L.J. Petra are in charge of implementing MLB’S coronavirus protocols.