MLB executives explain outbreak response, why they never considered stopping the season

Hannah Keyser
·13-min read

It’s already taken ambitious, exhausting schedule reconfiguration, a willingness to bend on baseball’s fundamental nine-inning building block, and a loose interpretation of competitive integrity to get this far. But at no point in the first three weeks of a baseball season that has included mass coronavirus outbreaks on two teams and league-wide fallout from the ensuing disruptions has Major League Baseball considered calling off the whole thing.

“We haven't gotten to the point where the commissioner has seriously considered canceling the season,” Dan Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner, said in an interview with Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “And hopefully we will never get to that point.”

This as the Cardinals, who had 18 total players and staffers test positive, prepare to return to play this weekend after 16 days spent sidelined and sometimes quarantined. And as the Marlins head back to Miami, a COVID-19 hotspot, for their first home game after an intended six-day road trip ballooned to 23 days because of MLB’s first outbreak.

But MLB’s top officials are confident that they’ve learned enough from those two outbreaks, and have been encouraged enough by the lack of positives on other teams, to sustain the remainder of a regular season played in home ballparks. For now, at least.

To better understand why the league thinks its plan for the season, which includes recently updated protocols, is working and what that looks like on a granular level, Yahoo Sports spoke to Halem, along with senior vice president Bryan Seeley and vice president Moira Weinberg, the top executives in MLB’s investigations department, which is overseeing the contact-tracing program.

This conversation, conducted via one phone call with all three executives, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why didn't baseball do a bubble originally?

Halem: I mean, we planned a bubble originally. And then decided after talking to our experts that a bubble for the regular season would have been hard for us for several different reasons. One is the question of where you do it. We need a lot of stadiums to conduct our games. And some of the places that would have been under consideration, actually, at the time we started, were some of the biggest COVID hotspots in the United States.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 03: Detail of baseballs on the field as the Arizona Diamondbacks participate in summer workouts ahead of the abbreviated MLB season at Chase Field on July 03, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The 2020 season, which has been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to start later this month. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
A once floated plan to play the season in a bubble in Arizona ran into difficulties with weather conditions and player resistance. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

There were weather issues, generally, for example, if we were going to do it in Arizona. So there are a combination of factors that kind of led us to choose the model that we have. Also took into account the fact that, since we had to play in an entire 60-game regular season plus the postseason, it would have been a long period to isolate and quarantine, under those rules, our entire player and staff population, so the human element came into play. And finally based on people who are experts, they did not feel that travel, necessarily, getting on a plane, increased the risk provided all the protocols were followed, so that was a decision that we made. And in most markets, so far, knock on wood, it has worked out.

Pretty much the overarching narrative of 2020 in the country is that we all underestimated coronavirus. So I’m curious when you’re overseeing an entire sports league that spans the country, how can you be confident planning for months at a time, especially when the stakes are so high? I guess what I’m asking is: How do you know you’re not underestimating the virus now?

Halem: I think our approach has been, plan for a lot of contingencies in the future but take each day as they come and try to make the best decisions each day, and then move on to the next day. I mean, this is really kind of like walking, you know, one foot at a time and things change so much. And given that even the experts don't have all the answers, you really need to take each day as it comes, while planning for as many contingencies as you can plan for, but understanding you have to be very flexible and be willing to make changes when needed because it's very difficult to make decisions in an environment of uncertainty.

And actually, as you go along, you kind of get more comfortable with making decisions in the face of uncertainty, But in the beginning, it's really tough because we're kind of all trained to be buttoned up, and to be planners and, looking out for two or three months and saying, this is exactly what we're going to do and how we're going to do it.

Do you think MLB underestimated the virus back in March?

Halem: I don't think so. I mean, I think we knew what we were up against, and we knew that there were gonna be a lot of challenges.

I think, just like anything else, kind of, our experience in terms of rolling out programs, policies in any area, it takes a while to kind of work out all the kinks. Some things, you know, obviously needed adjustments, and we made those adjustments, but when you don't have the benefit of having a trial run with practice and you're actually doing things for the first time in game situations, you have to be willing to learn from your experience and make modifications as needed. So I don’t think we underestimated it, but we knew there were going to be issues or an obstacle that we would encounter.

We've heard all along the protocols are designed to allow teams to play through an isolated positive test, and that, in fact, this season can only happen if MLB has a plan for what to do when a player tests positive. But we've seen now that playing through positives backfires, because that first round of positive tests may only be the tip of the iceberg or the beginning of the outbreak. So should teams still plan to play on a day when one or two guys test positive?

Halem: I think the key is using your experience to try to understand what type of situation you're dealing with. And it's largely going to be determined based on the contact-tracing process, the timeline of when we saw a positive or more than one positive test in the club. The real issue is whether the virus spread or we believe it spread in the club before we got that first positive test result. The second issue is making sure that anybody that may have been infected was identified and isolated at the outset to prevent further spread.

Weinberg: So our contact tracing starts immediately after a notification. So, an individual's notified that he or she tested positive, and then either as part of that call or a call immediately after, they start the contact-tracing process, try to look at who the person was around during their infection window, and we rely on the CDC standards for that, which is usually 48 hours prior to a positive test collection or prior to symptoms coming on.

You go through in painstaking detail, everything the person did during that 48-hour period — so every meal they had, every meeting they had, every workout they did, where they sat on each form of transportation, and you try to identify anybody who may have been within the zone of risk as the CDC has defined it.

The initial case may come into the team but what we did with the Marlins case, and the Cardinals case, we at the commissioner's office kind of doubled back on the contact-tracing process to try to figure out how it went from one case to more than one so quickly, and we try to look at it more than just the individual who tested positive and that individual’s close contacts, but was there something kind of bigger picture that we can learn from that to try to make sure that it didn’t happen again to another club? So we had a bit more of a heavy hand in those two cases than we had earlier in the season when clubs reported to training camps. There were some positives and those were handled more at the club level.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon hands the ball over to manager Mike Shildt, left, after being pulled in the fifth inning of the team's baseball game against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
The St. Louis Cardinals have played only five games so far in 2020 because of a COVID-19 outbreak that spread through the team. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

I'm curious how you are balancing the everyday nature of baseball with the fact that, even when you are getting those first signs that there might be an outbreak on a team, you don't necessarily even know who you should be contact tracing around yet because of the nature of the incubation period?

Halem: From contact tracing, you can tell a lot, particularly in terms of how well the protocols have been followed. The whole point of the protocols is to prevent the transmission of the virus, even if somebody has it. So, for example, if the club and then Moira are interviewing a player and he says, “Well, I had a meeting in a hotel room with two other people and we weren't wearing masks.” OK, then we know there's a good likelihood that those other two individuals, who will be identified as close contacts, may test positive also. But then we go a step further and then speak to those two individuals and see who they may have come in contact with and see where the chain ends.

What we found is on-field interactions haven’t been sufficient to transmit the virus. It’s detective work and you kind of got to follow the chain and then you make decisions and the result of those decisions for example was to, you know, have the Cardinals inactive for a longer period of time, and keep the Marlins inactive for a longer period of time. And that’s based on all this work where we weren't confident that we were able to identify all the individuals who may be at risk and, therefore, we made a decision not to play a club.

It sounds like you're sort of saying that based on the detective work you did around particularly the Cardinals, that you kind of knew to brace for more positive tests coming out over the next few days and that's part of why we're seeing them still sidelined.

Halem: There’ve been very few positives, other than sort of the initial kind of batch that came in together, that we haven’t been able to predict in advance, and that's just based on the contact-tracing process. When people are having contact, without masks, particularly inside, we're kind of assuming that those people are at risk for contracting the virus.

We did an extremely thorough investigation. They did the Marlins investigation and produced a very detailed report. The purpose of that report was to learn from it, right? You got to just learn from your experiences. We did that and we shared it with the Players Association, who we’re in constant contact with, and we did the same thing with St. Louis and that gave us a lot of overlaps. And then based on that experience, after talking to our experts, who reviewed what we found, we made a series of changes in the protocols that were distributed after negotiating with the union. Bryan will take you through those.

Seeley: Generally, a couple areas but the big one is mask wearing. So we said now on buses and planes, everybody's got to wear either a surgical mask or N95 or KN95, which offer greater protection than your cloth masks or your gaiters. Also, players have to wear face coverings in the dugout and bullpen unless they’re actively warming up.

And then a lot of the changes were in regard to beefing up a compliance program, which is being overseen by a former federal prosecutor who works for me. We put monitors in the visiting hotels in all cities. We put monitors in the clubhouse about three-and-a-half to four hours before the game until an hour after the game. The clubs were required to appoint a compliance officer, we have weekly calls with reports, and the players aren’t allowed to leave the hotel on the road without notifying the compliance officer and getting permission.

As part of that, it says that you will issue written warnings to players who have any protocol infractions. Have you issued any written warnings yet?

Seeley: I don't think we've issued any written warnings that I'm aware of. A lot of this is being handled at the club level. I actually think that discipline or warnings from the club is more effective in many ways than discipline or warnings from MLB. And frankly, you know the thing that's going to get people to adhere to the protocols the best is peer pressure.

I'm sure you've heard about the incident with the Indians last week, and some of the comments from other players. I think players holding their own accountable is the best way to get adherence to the protocols.

When you've done the contact tracing for teams that have had outbreaks, for the Marlins or the Cardinals, are you finding that the problem with the spread is inherent in the protocols, as written? Are there gaps? Or is the spread coming from human error?

Weinberg: The spread is coming from human error. I think what happens is people know the people around them are being tested either every day or every other day, and they're in such a tight group that they traveled together and they spend so much time together that there's a natural letting down your guard a little bit. People know they’re supposed to be wearing masks but when you're eating, obviously you're not. You're gonna have to take off your mask to eat and some of those things extend a little longer or they're a little too close when they're doing it and there are a few breaks in the protocols. People not adhering to the protocol, that led to most of the transmission events that we think we identified. It doesn't take flagrant violations of the protocols, given what we know about the virus, it could be letting down your guard over and over again and having a few things where people are around and they're taking off their masks or getting a little too close, they're not adhering to them as strictly as needed.

I think if you look at the other clubs that have not had outbreaks, it's not the protocols themselves because if it was the protocols themselves then this would be happening a lot more. I think it's where maybe people get lulled into a sense of comfort and let down their guard a little bit, where it has the capacity to go from one case to spread.

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