By Alan Resnick
After months of heated negotiations, baseball’s compressed 60-game season finally began this week, with cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands instead of people. In an attempt to mitigate as many risk factors as possible while playing in the midst of a pandemic,, Major League Baseball has come up with a hefty new 101-page Operations Manual. The safeguards it establishes apply to everyone: players, manager, coaches, umpires and clubhouse personnel alike. I’m doubtful, though. While I certainly understand their intent, I fear they’ve taken a game that an increasing number of people find bland and boring and made it even more vanilla.
The painstaking precautions outlined in the manual fall into a number of different categories. Most relate to COVID-19 testing and health screening, in terms of frequency and the actions to be taken should someone test positive. Others involve safety measures to be taken when traveling on planes and staying in hotels for away games (e.g., the traveling party will have a private check-in and entrance at hotels to avoid interactions with the public). The ones I find most fascinating, however, involve on-field safety rules. There are pages and pages of these precautions.
Players are now being “strongly discouraged” from throwing the ball around the infield after an out. Growing up, we called this “around the horn,” an activity that took place when no men were on base after either a strike out or an out at first base. The ball would be tossed from infielder to infielder, always ending with the third basemen, who would then toss the ball back to the pitcher. It was a ritual that we practiced every bit as much as we did batting or fielding. But now the risks of contamination have been deemed to be too great. I suppose that a generic around the horn could be shown on the stadium Jumbotron, but, then again, what’s the point if there are no fans in the stands to see it?
Arguing with umpires or with the opposing team in close proximity is now verboten. One of the simple pleasures of the game used to be watching your team’s manager rush out from the dugout and stand toe-to-toe with an umpire to dispute a call. There was your guy, getting in the umpire’s face, kicking dirt on his pants and unintentionally (perhaps?) spraying spittle on his face. Now, an umpire could now possibly wear a protective shield, but it may be difficult to secure a face mask over the top of it. And I suppose that current technology could be used to allow a manager to text his protest, but “you’re blind as a bat” loses much of its bite when not spoken from three inches away from the ump’s face.
High fives, fist bumps, and hugs are now prohibited, and players will have to line up six feet apart to celebrate a walk-off hit. (It’s not entirely clear if there will be markers on the baselines to designate the six-foot social distancing requirement or if players will be asked to just guesstimate it.) Displays of emotion on the field have been a controversial subject in baseball in recent years; some have argued that these displays have added needed color to the game, while traditionalists feel that these antics occasionally violate baseball’s unwritten rules about how the game should be played. (I tend to lean toward the traditionalists on this issue.) Perhaps those giant foam finger souvenirs can be distributed to players before they line up so that they can safely slap palms with the hero of the game. Of course, they would have to be disposed of after the celebration.
Baseballs used during batting practice must now be disinfected and taken out of circulation for at least five days. When I played organized youth baseball, our equipment bag had maybe a total of six balls. I wonder if the little leagues have adopted a similar rule because, when I played organized youth baseball our equipment bag had maybe a total of six balls. “Can we practice again tomorrow, coach, please?” “No, sorry, Timmy, we can’t practice again until Saturday. I have to go home and sanitize our baseballs and leave them in the garage until the weekend.”
Even the phone in the dugout must be wiped down before being used to contact the bullpen. In the past, some managers were criticized for leaving pitchers in the game after they had “lost their stuff.” They did not have a relief pitcher warming up and ready in time to stave off a big inning. But now, managers have an excuse: “I told Schultz to call the bullpen to get Thomas up and ready, but we ran out of Lysol wipes in the clubhouse. By the time they arrived, the game got out of hand.”
Another integral part of baseball tradition is the mound visit, where the pitching coach or manager strolls out to have a chat with the pitcher. Other infielders typically join in the scrum, and they cover their mouths with their gloves so that the opposing team cannot read their lips. But now, it is expected that the participants maintain their social distance and that gloves not be raised to the mouth, making it harder to conceal the contents of these strategic discussions in an empty stadium. And the manager and pitching coach will be expected to wear masks and maintain their social distance as well. What was once a tight little circle will look more like the opening of a square dance.
The single safety precaution that I find most curious is that team mascots will be allowed in the stadium, but not on the field. I have a simple question: What does a mascot do in an empty stadium? There is no one there to enjoy their zany antics. I can think of little sadder than an adult wearing a mascot suit wandering around the corridors of a deserted stadium.
I believe that there is a significant prophylactic that baseball has neglected to consider: the full body condom. I’m not talking about the kind worn by Priscilla Presley and Leslie Neilsen in The Naked Gun, but rather something that looks more like a spacesuit made out of super-thin latex or polyurethane. This would permit full range of motion in the arms and legs, so players could easily swing a bat, bend down to field a ground ball, pitch, throw, or run. They could be tinted in different colors, so that each team could have both a home and away condom. And I’m guessing that designs could be added to reflect each team’s unique insignia. Just imagine a full body condom with the Yankee pinstripes.. I think I’ll contact Major League Baseball after I disinfect my phone and see what they have to say.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.