The Red Sox scouting department doesn’t require convincing about the risks inherent in a pandemic.
In August 2009, upon returning to Boston from the Area Code Games in California — an annual staple of the high school summer showcase circuit — at least three members of the Sox amateur scouting department were diagnosed with the H1N1 swine flu. All three were tested immediately when they started presenting symptoms, had the results of their tests within 15 minutes, and were placed in quarantine as part of the required response to the last virus defined as a pandemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In that instance, fallout of exposure to a widespread virus was quickly contained. But the lessons and concerns from that time endured.
This is a time of year that typically features scouts darting across the country and world on planes, the peak of the evaluation season in preparation for the 2020 amateur draft and international signing period. Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni noted that he’d been scheduled earlier this past week to drive from Fort Myers, Fla., to Orlando to watch one game before jumping on a flight to New Orleans to catch another that evening, with plans of turning around for a flight to Raleigh, N.C.
It’s typical at this time of year for several members of an amateur scouting group to have one to two flights a day as many as six days a week, with others driving all over their coverage regions for several days at a time. That schedule takes a toll. Nearly every scout by the end of the season will have been hammered by illness at some point.
In most years, that’s an accepted inevitability of the job. But with the coronavirus sweeping the world, concerns about both infection and transmission led the Red Sox to tell their scouts to cease flights by last Wednesday, with that policy change being codified by e-mail on Thursday.
“You’re talking about getting on planes, hopping in rental cars, and being around thousands of people. Those three arenas right there seem to me like cesspools to contract something,” said Toboni. “You start combining that with the fact that you’re on the road so much, you’re operating with little sleep, some of our guys maybe don’t have time to exercise because they’re running from town to town. All of those things add up and they’re probably leaking a little bit.
“Teams are going to be racing to see players. While they’re trying to preserve what they might perceive as a competitive advantage, they also might be compromising public health. It was really a no-brainer for us when we decided to shut down flight travel and make some precautions to travel in general. It was the right move to make from a public health perspective.”
As of Friday, Major League Baseball had consulted with teams but had left it to individual clubs to decide how they’ll approach travel for scouting purposes. But scouts of three teams said that their teams were all restricting their activity to driving rather than flying, and one American League team said that its scouts had been pulled off the road completely.
Of course, it might not be long before such measures are unnecessary. Red Sox Northeast regional scout Ray Fagnant, who’d been in Florida to see New England college teams playing in spring tournaments, decided by the middle of the week to drive back to be with his family at home in Connecticut amid the growing public health crisis. He figured he’d look for some games — college, high school, junior college, anything — while on the road. There were none. He simply encountered an inbox full of news of cancellations, with the amateur baseball ranks following the professional sports leagues in the decision to suspend or cancel their seasons.
“[Cancellations] just came rolling in seemingly every minute,” said Toboni.
“There are literally no games for us to see with all the cancellations,” said another area scout.
The amateur draft is scheduled for June 10-12. The Sox and others are planning as if there won’t be any further opportunities to scout games before it.
Internationally, a similar story is unfolding. The international amateur scouting community is one that often shrugs off the notion of risk — navigating regions with severe political, economic, and social instability in the constant search for talent.
At the same time, the global itineraries of many international scouts create an increased awareness of emerging international concerns. For instance, when Red Sox Pacific Rim scouting supervisor Brett Ward arrived in Fort Myers for team meetings at the end of February, he avoided shaking hands with colleagues whom he saw on the back fields of Fenway South.
At the time, some were puzzled by his employment of elbow bumps as a form of greeting, but in retrospect, those in the organization recognize that Ward simply had already come to understand public health concerns and measures that would soon have to be adopted everywhere.
An international scouting community that often views travel risk through a different prism than other segments of the population has altered its calculus in the face of the coronavirus. In early March, the team canceled plans to have its Asian-based pro scouts come to Fort Myers for meetings. This past week, the club likewise canceled a planned meeting of its international amateur scouts in the Dominican Republic. Finally, in recent days, the team decided to stop all flights by its international scouts.
“[In the past] we’ve gone to cover events or scout certain players in not the safest of environments, totally recognizing that there is some inherent risk knowing that some of the places you’re going to may not be safe, but there’s the infrastructure [that] if something were to go wrong, you would have the right medical means or security means to make it out,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero. “This is different being that it’s not just about us anymore. It’s public health, especially being that we could be carrying the virus without showing symptoms. It’s not about our singular case anymore. And there’s a lot that’s not known about the virus so far.
“There are so many questions about it that this is a no-brainer. We need to shut everybody down and make sure no one is taking an unnecessary risk here to get a look at a player.”
As with many other people in many other sectors, the uncertainty and inactivity runs counter to the rhythms of scouts’ lives. But for a group of professionals that recognizes that its travel schedules not only create personal but also potentially public risk, the dwindling opportunities to scout aren’t worth chasing.
“It’s something we’ve thought about a lot,” said Toboni. “Let’s say I [get the coronavirus] and am holding onto the rail at the Atlanta airport, a 75-year-old woman who has pulmonary disease might hold onto the same rail and contract it. I would never know I impacted her life, but it’s very real. There’s a certain moral responsibility to this, too.”