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Rob Manfred details MLB testing plans in bid to return to play amid pandemic

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was "hopeful" that MLB can start its season this summer.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was "hopeful" that MLB can start its season this summer.John Raoux/Associated Press

The head of Major League Baseball detailed on Thursday the league's plans for a return to play this year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Commissioner Rob Manfred said that frequent testing would be a "key" element, and that a positive test for a player would not necessarily force his entire team into quarantine.

Speaking on CNN, Manfred said he was "hopeful" that MLB can start its season this summer, after it suspended spring training in mid-March while almost every other major sports league worldwide enacted similar shutdowns.

"We are making plans about playing in empty stadiums," Manfred told CNN, "but as I've said before, all of those plans are dependent on what the public health situation is, and us reaching the conclusion that it'll be safe for our players and other employees to come back to work."

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The commissioner said that as part of the "extensive protocols" MLB has developed in a bid to return this year, "All of our players would be tested multiple times a week - PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing to determine whether or not they had the virus. That testing would be supplemented, less frequently, by antibody testing as well."

Teams will also be doing temperature checks and symptom analyses for every player, every day, said Manfred. He added that experts with whom MLB has consulted advised that in the event of a positive test by a player, his teammates would not have to quarantine for 14 days.

That jibed with claims Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made earlier this week in the context of the NFL's possible return this year. He suggested that one player testing positive might not be enough to cancel a game, because it could be an "outlier" result. Fauci went on to note that as few as four players testing positive on the same squad might present a major problem, however, as that could indicate "the other ones that [tested] negative are really positive."

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Under the MLB plan, a player testing positive would go into isolation, and the league would commence contact tracing and point-of-care testing for those people. Quarantined players would need to have two negative tests within a 24-hour period to be allowed to return to their teams, Manfred said.

While acknowledging that "nothing is risk-free," he said MLB officials "hope that we will be able to convince the vast majority of players that it's safe to return to work."

"The protocols for returning to play, the health-related protocols, are about 80 pages in length," said Manfred. "They're extraordinarily detailed. . . . At the end of the day, however, if there's players with either health conditions or just their own personal doubts, we would never force them, or try to force them, to come back to work. They can wait until they feel they're ready to come."

Aiding MLB in its plan to enact extensive testing will be Salt Lake City's Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, which already oversees the league's drug-testing program. The facility recently helped researchers run a major, nationwide study of the prevalence of covid-19 antibodies, one that used thousands of MLB staffers and players as test subjects.

"The lab in Utah has assured us of a 24-hour turnaround on all of our tests," Manfred said Thursday. "So we feel comfortable that by doing multiple tests a week, we can try to minimize that turnaround time, we're doing everything humanly possible to make sure that the players are safe."

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Another major hurdle MLB is trying to clear is a labor agreement with its players union, given a shortened season that Manfred said he hopes can commence in early July.

Declaring that teams stood to lose as much as $4 billion if there is no 2020 season, the commissioner proclaimed "great confidence" that a deal will be reached.

Some sports in other countries have resumed or are about to do so, including baseball leagues in South Korea and Taiwan and Germany's top soccer league, and Manfred said he and others are watching intently to see what may or may not be working well for those organizations.

After it was noted on the CNN segment that some games overseas have used fake fans in the stands to give the feel of a normal event, Manfred said that he has had conversations with MLB broadcast partners about "what we can do from an enhancement perspective."

As for what he has been watching on TV in the absence of sports, Manfred said he has instead been “reading a lot” and exercising. He added with a smile, “I guess somebody in my job has to believe there’s no substitute for live sports.”