Rejoice, baseball fans. There is a path to Major League Baseball games getting played this summer.
At least that is the opinion of Dr. Nik Verma, the head team physician for the Chicago White Sox.
“Yeah, I do (see a path). And I'm speaking personally at this point,” Dr. Verma told NBC Sports Chicago in a lengthy chat over Zoom on Monday. “You know, we'll take the fan portion out of it because that's going to be a much bigger decision and probably will be delayed. But if you think about just playing baseball, it's really no different than trying to open up, for example, our medical practice.”
It’s important to note that Dr. Verma is not speaking on behalf of Major League Baseball, but he is offering an expert opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Verma has worked with the White Sox since 2004 and was named the team’s head physician in 2017. He also serves as the director of the Division of Sports Medicine for Midwest Orthopedics at Rush Hospital. He is heavily involved in how the White Sox are handling operations since spring training was shut down in March, and is in contact with players to make sure they have what they need to stay ready for the season, whenever that is.
“We have 480 employees (in our practice),” Dr. Verma said. “You think about a baseball game, you got to have not only the two teams, but probably 100 or so employees on each side that are facilitating the game getting played, which includes the umpire staff and team physicians, health staff, diet staff, food service people; all those types of people that just make the game playable.”
It’s a large amount of people who need to be protected from COVID-19, but his point is that if you can reopen a medical practice, you can get a baseball game played – if you have the testing.
“It comes down to our ability to have access and socially reasonable guidelines for testing, meaning we shouldn't have testing to play baseball if it means we can't have testing in an emergency room for people that are coming in that are sick,” Dr. Verma said. “Once we have that access to testing, it really becomes just like the way that other societies are using it.”
Dr. Verma pointed to South Korea, where exhibition games in the Korean Baseball Organization resume on Tuesday, as an example. The country used widespread testing and contact-tracing to stay ahead of the United States in the spread of COVID-19.
“The way that you battle this disease is that you have access to testing,” Dr. Verma said.
The White Sox’ head physician went on to explain that it doesn’t matter if you’re a baseball player or anyone else. If you are feeling ill and aren’t sure if you should go to work, having access to convenient testing with quick results will greatly help reduce the spread of the virus. With enough of it, Dr. Verma believes they can play baseball without having further delays because of outbreaks in clubhouses.
“That's the way you control an epidemic. That's infectious disease 101,” he said. “So if you take that to a baseball scenario, we've got to be able to say that if a baseball player has symptoms and tests positive, that we can then test the rest of the team or the rest of the people that have been in contact with that player whether it's a teammate, a food service worker, or a family member. Establish who's positive or negative, take all of those people out of the equation, and then continue to play baseball.
“The problem is without that access to testing, what happens now is somebody tests positive, and then all the sudden, you have to quarantine everybody associated with that, and then the White Sox or the Yankees or the Red Sox go offline, and how do you play a season when an entire team is going to go offline for two weeks at a time?”
Dr. Verma isn’t suggesting it will be easy. South Korea is small enough that air travel is not necessary to play games. The teams are all close enough to bus to road games. That’s why resuming play in Arizona and/or Florida at spring training facilities might be necessary.
“Think about the volume of exposure to somebody who may turn positive if they're traveling,” Dr. Verma said. “You’ve got all the team's staff that was present in Chicago, and let's say you test positive and you're now in Baltimore. Now you've got all those exposures as well. So the only reason it makes sense, and again, I'm speaking independently on my own thought process -- this is not MLB or MLB's position -- but I think the more you can limit the number of contacts, the easier it becomes to manage somebody with a positive test.”
In other words, a potential return to baseball must account for the possibility of a player testing positive and games continuing to be played if/when that happens. Dr. Verma told NBC Sports Chicago that to his knowledge, “there has not been any player in the MLB system that has tested positive as of yet.”
That could obviously change if players come out of quarantine. But with the right testing, and reducing travel for road games, Dr. Verma believes games can be played, even without quarantining players at hotels.
“It’s a lot easier to narrow it down to a city, and maybe we don't have to go to the rigors that we were talking about before, where we quarantine players in a hotel room and they can't even interact with their families,” Dr. Verma said.
Based on early responses from players, the possibility of playing games with players quarantined away from their families seems like a nonstarter.
As South Korea resumes exhibition games Tuesday – without fans in the stands – and eyes an early May start to the regular season, Major League Baseball will be watching closely. The United States still has a way to go before it catches up to South Korea, but if adequate testing emerges, baseball games could follow.
“Once we have that access to testing that is applicable to society as a whole, there is a path forward for baseball and other sports to use testing in the same way that my practice is going to use or your newsroom is going to use it,” Dr. Verma said.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.