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OC Register: Hoornstra: Baseball’s new operations manual is a large wager with high stakes


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It consists of 38,611 words over 108 pages including every footnote, diagram, index and attachment. It is at times more precise than a Supreme Court decision, particularly in matters of wiping toilets. It will undergird every day of the 2021 baseball season and if it works, paradoxically, it will remain mostly invisible to fans.

Yes, the new Operations Manual is here. And it’s something to behold.

It’s news whenever Major League Baseball’s players and owners agree to anything of substance these days, let alone anything of this much substance. The volume of accommodations required by the COVID-19 pandemic is massive.

Some modifications to baseball’s on-field rules will be familiar to anyone who watched a game in 2020:

• Regular-season games that are tied after nine innings will feature a runner on second base to begin the top of the 10th, and every half-inning thereafter.

• Doubleheaders will consist of two seven-inning games.

• Position players are allowed to pitch.

• Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager “for the purpose of argument,” or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.

The designated hitter won’t return to the National League, and the playoff field will be limited to five teams in each league. The MLB Players Association reportedly wanted to hold onto the National League DH as a chip in future collective bargaining negotiations. Owners preferred expanding the postseason, as they did in 2020 when eight teams in each league qualified for the playoffs. That neither the universal DH nor the expanded postseason will return in 2021 is, for fans, a matter of preference.

The rules are ostensibly designed to resolve games as quickly and safely as possible. Even the smaller rules have a certain “get it over with” charm. The pregame lineup card exchange at home plate is gone; teams must input their lineups digitally. In spring training games through March 13, managers are allowed to end an inning prior to three outs following any completed plate appearance, as long as his pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches. The penalties for fighting or instigating a fight promise to be large. “Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action,” reads Rule 5.2. “Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline.”

Semi-serious question: does making a pouty lip at your opponent count as instigating a fight?

While players being required to wear Kinexon wristbands at team facilities in order to conduct contact tracing in case of a positive test shouldn’t inconvenience anyone, the rules for player conduct away from the field are more intrusive. They extend beyond the dugout, and the clubhouse, and the team bus, and into players’ homes and hotel rooms. The scope of these rules will be familiar to last season’s participants. But with an additional 102 regular-season games on the schedule, and travel being conducted between cities around the country – not just within the west, central and east regions – the 2021 season amounts to a rather large wager on baseball’s part.

What’s the bet? That players and their families can suck up dozens of behind-the-scenes inconveniences for eight months, not five, to accommodate baseball during a pandemic. That seeing the 2020 season through to the end was more a matter of skill than luck. That playing a 60-game season under the same restrictions isn’t merely repeatable – it can work over 162 games while logging thousands of additional miles on buses and planes and cars.

Here are just a few of the more intrusive rules for 2021:

Rule 7.1.4 (“Air Travel”) reads, in part: Whenever a member of a traveling party uses the lavatory on the team plane, he or she should use a disposable glove (or, if unavailable, a paper tissue) to touch any surface and should wash hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer after each use.

Dining in a public restaurant is off-limits to players, even in the team hotel, regardless of any local ordinances in place. Rule 7.17 (“Hotel Accomodations”) reads, in part: The traveling party is not permitted to leave the hotel to eat or otherwise use any restaurants (in the hotel or otherwise) open to the public, except for outdoor/curbside pickup of food or beverage.

What if a player and his family happen to live in a city that his team is visiting? You can go home again, but it comes with a cost. Rule 7.17 also states that players can only stay in their own home during a road trip if the house is empty, or if the only other people staying in the residence “are immediate family members or cohabitants of the player.”

Those immediate family members and cohabitants need to read Page 81. They must quarantine “at that residence for at least the five days leading up to the player’s arrival, and on each day of the five-day at-home quarantine, and continuing throughout the entire period of time the player is staying in that personal residence … self-administer a saliva sample in the appropriate Spectrum saliva collection kit” – then ship the sample for processing at their own expense.

In effect, baseball is betting on itself again. The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah will again serve as the primary clearinghouse for all COVID-19 testing samples. Tests for players and coaches will be conducted at least every other day from the beginning of spring training until the final out of the World Series. The new protocols are, in large part, a bet that the old protocols were sound enough to work again.

Is that too much to ask?

Maybe not. The potential of vaccinations for players, coaches and staff is nearer than it was last season (players will be encouraged but not required to get vaccinated “at the appropriate time”). Perhaps many within the game are betting that not all 108 pages of the operations manual will be needed from start to finish, if vaccinations and herd immunity are ultimately effective in stemming the spread of COVID-19.

Make no mistake, it amounts to a large wager. We’ll find out soon enough whether it was worth the risk.

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