2020 MLB season likely to come with more risk than first promised


The more we learn about Major League Baseball’s efforts to work with the players union on a tentative plan to start the baseball season in early July, the more it looks like it will become an economic decision over a health decision — a likely reality facing most industries slowed or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really tricky, said Dr. Robert Cintronberg, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. “The right time to restart activities in general is when the cases of this disease are declining day after day after day, and we don’t know when that’s going to be yet. So it’s very difficult to assign an arbitrary date and say July 1 we’re going to have baseball.”

MLB has said little publicly on its would-be plans but has stayed in regular communication with other leagues as golf and auto racing have begun to schedule events, as the NFL moves undeterred toward an on-time start and as the NBA reportedly discusses an Orlando hub for finishing its season and conducting the playoffs.

The Cubs are among the teams keeping staff and players in the loop on possible timelines and scenarios being discussed by MLB with top team officials so they can be ready for whatever might happen — though nothing definitive has been discussed.

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With no way to project anything close to effective testing capacity or proven antibody immunity — in the next six months, much less the next six weeks — any 2020 baseball season almost certainly will start under imperfect conditions for preventative health measures and come with more risk than originally promised.

“And it’s not just for baseball games,” said Cintronberg, speaking with NBC Sports Chicago for a podcast about the health factors involved in starting the season. “It’s for everything we do in society. At some point we’re going to have to go back and eat at restaurants. We’re going to have to go back and do all those things we do, and just try to do it in the safest manner possible.

“We’re all going to go back gradually into society, but I think people need to understand it’s not going to be without risk.”

Cintronberg suggested the U.S. might be at the point during the crisis to begin the process of increasing activities, with an abundance of respect for safe practices.

Stay-at-home orders already are being lifted in states such as Texas and Georgia have been lifted despite daily increases in COVID-19 infections and deaths — among at least 28 states that have lifted at least some restrictions or that never imposed limits.

MLB reportedly has prepared a proposal for the players union regarding a plan to start an abbreviated baseball season in early July. A series of hurdles must be cleared for that to happen, including the players and MLB resolving disagreements over prorated salary terms.

Meanwhile, little to nothing has changed in the leaked details of that proposal since the earliest reports of leaked plans more than a month ago, at least in terms of timelines and desired season length.

And what’s significant about that is that little to nothing has changed in our understanding of how best to contain or even treat the virus — much less how widespread it might be in many regions of the country because testing lags far behind what experts suggest.

By midweek, about 250,000 Americans per day were being tested or the virus, compared to the minimum 900,000 experts at Harvard University said were needed for adequate tracking.

More than 75,000 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to COVID-19, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington this week doubled its previous projected national death estimate by August to 134,000 as stay-at-home orders were lifted.

At the very least, don’t expect enough testing to be available for MLB to take the kind of “best guess” precautions Cintronberg advises even with some quarantine conditions: at least weekly testing of all personnel from Day 1 of Spring Training 2.0 to the end of a postseason.

Some have estimated at least 1,600 players, coaches, managers and other essential personnel would be needed to conduct a season. That would mean at least 32,000 tests for a mid-June spring training start through late October. Never mind starting earlier or staging playoffs through November as some have suggested.

Even if MLB could secure that many tests and the means to run them, “I’m not sure how well received that would be [in the public],” Cintronberg said.

Antibody tests are available now. But researches have yet to prove that the presence of antibodies assures immunity, Cintronberg said.

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Vaccines? A best-case scenario, he said, even with research labs around the world working on them puts a possible vaccine into late next year. If one is even found. Researchers still have not developed an effective vaccine for the SARS coronavirus that killed about 900 people globally from 2002-04.

Nobody’s waiting until 2022 to play baseball — or anything else. 

As the nationwide shutdown of professional and major college sports reaches the two-month mark next week, maybe a restart for baseball and some others is coming sooner than we expected. Maybe by July.

But it won’t be because they have adequate resources to contain or track infections or because we’re certain anyone’s immune.

“It’s really more of a philosophy, I think, about what you want to do,” Citronberg said. “I caution people that if we’re careless or reckless about it, we can have a second wave of infections that’s worse than the first wave, believe it or not. And I think that would be devastating. We really have to be smart about this.”

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