Big questions remain about MLB testing plan, while shower ban worries players


Will testing be frequent enough? Will it be reliable enough? And will the proposed measures for handling a positive test be enough to prevent the coronavirus from spreading throughout the sport?

These are the biggest questions facing Major League Baseball, even after it sent an incredibly detailed list of health-and-safety proposals to the players' union last week.

The rate of testing in the United States is increasing. But it still is not where health experts say it needs to be. And as the league pitches a plan to start a shortened 2020 season in a little over a month, it is suggesting frequent testing but not daily testing, which could put players and all those necessary to stage a season at higher risk of infection.

While many of the health-and-safety proposals would dramatically alter the day-to-day lives of players, perhaps the best ways to combat the spread of the virus - daily tests, nasal swabs, contact tracing and strict social distancing - have been among the least restrictive of the proposals, perhaps with the intention not to further ruffle the feathers of the players, who will need to sign off on these measures and come to an agreement on the financial front if the season is going to be played at all.

Commendably, Major League Baseball says it is committed to conducting tests and other safety measures in a way that does not impact the supplies of the general population fighting the disease outside the walls of a well-financed professional sports league. But that could mean a less-than-ideal testing program for baseball. Without daily testing and with tests that don't reveal a result until 24 hours later, a scenario exists in which an asymptomatic player could easily spread the virus among not just his own teammates but players on opposing teams, potentially exposing dozens before he even knew he was positive.

Similarly worrisome, the league is proposing conducting the majority of its tests using saliva samples (as opposed to the more intrusive nasal swabs), which a health expert told The Athletic's Andy McCullough and Marc Carig is an unreliable method at the moment.

"Saliva testing is in its infancy with this disorder," said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "I understand why they want to go there. But I don't know if we're 100 percent at a point where we can trust saliva testing. Maybe by the time that June rolls around we'll be there."

Under the league's proposal, a player who does test positive would be quarantined. But the league would not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's contact-tracing guidelines, which recommend that anyone who came into contact with an infected person self-isolates for 14 days. The reasons are obvious. Major League Baseball doesn't want to have to shut a team, multiple teams or the sport as a whole down in the middle of the season. The problem is that this is not the best way to prevent the spread of the virus, and without isolating a positive player's teammates, the virus could continue to spread throughout the sport.

When the idea to quarantine the entire season in Arizona was discussed earlier this year, players balked. Understandably, they didn't want to be quarantined away from their families for months. But there were also complaints about their lives being restricted solely to hotel rooms and baseball fields. The league perhaps didn't want to even broach that subject again. While it's encouraging players to practice social distancing while away from the ballpark, be that at home or in the hotel while traveling, it's not mandating they stay in their homes and hotels, like it is for non-player members of teams' traveling parties, who are not to leave their hotels without permission.

That increases the risk of a player becoming infected due to contact with someone in the world at large and then bringing the virus into baseball's more controlled environment.

But allowing players greater freedom to move around in road cities was one of the alterations to the proposals that team executives suggested to The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal on Thursday, with one quoted as saying attempting to restrict players to hotels while on the road would be "really difficult to accomplish."

RELATED: White Sox arm Evan Marshall on MLB talks: Players 'made out to be the bad guys'

While there remain these huge questions about the league's ability to stop the spread of the virus, the players seem more irked by some of the other, perhaps less important proposals, the ones that tweak the game and alter their daily routines in an attempt to ensure a safer environment.

A big one: showers.

Under the league's initial proposals, showers will be one of the many things banned at big league ballparks, along with spitting, high fives, hugs, sunflower seeds, exchanging lineup cards and communal drink dispensers like Gatorade buckets. And while waiting until you get home to shower after a game might not strike as a grand sacrifice, it's weighing heavily on players' minds.

"'We discourage taking showers after games.' And my wife would discourage riding home with me after games," White Sox relief pitcher Evan Marshall told Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast. "Where do you go from there? If we can't take a shower after the game, then is it even safe to be playing?"

Among the suggested alterations to the proposals from team executives Rosenthal reported on, allowing players to shower at the park was among them, along with relaxing the proposed measures asking players not to use indoor batting cages and hydrotherapy pools.

"Not getting to use any of the facilities that help recover our bodies is going to be a problem," current Marlins and former Cubs pitcher Brandon Kintzler told ESPN's Jesse Rogers.

None of this might end up derailing a season, as the economic fight between the league and the union might have the ability to do. But while Major League Baseball showed how serious it was to attempting to ensure a safe environment, these big questions remain. Unfortunately, playing baseball games in the middle of a pandemic and guaranteeing 100 percent safety seem to be mutually exclusive.

"Once you get the (economic) side rolling, all these little things will fall in line," Marshall said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. "Like all the batters having to wear batting gloves and a much more often rotation of baseballs. ... All those things seem like they'll fall in line once we commit to playing and we set a season and a calendar and all that. Those are minor issues."

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Big questions remain about MLB testing plan, while shower ban worries players originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago


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