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Marc Topkin: MLB needs to address COVID-19 disclosure rules that leave Rays, others in a bad spot

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 7/5/2020 By Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times
a man standing on a baseball field: Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez at spring training on February 17, 2019, in Surprise, Ariz. © John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez at spring training on February 17, 2019, in Surprise, Ariz.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — To say the current plan for how teams have been left to deal with acknowledging players sidelined due to COVID-19 issues is a mess would be unfair — to past messes.

Major League Baseball and players union officials are dealing with myriad issues of various degrees of urgency in trying to start a 60-game season amid a pandemic. But this is one they are going to have to quickly clarify, and hopefully change.

As it currently stands, teams cannot in any way acknowledge that a player is sidelined due to any COVID-19 issues — a positive test, delayed results which require isolation, symptoms, exposure to someone who has it — without their permission due to privacy concerns and HIPPA laws.

So far, that has created an odd mix of reporting news and spreading speculation.

Some teams have gotten that go-ahead and announced the names — some big ones — of players who tested positive, such as Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, Royals catcher Salvador Perez and Padres outfielder Tommy Pham, the ex-Ray. Some dropped hints or had the information leak out.

Others, including the Rays, are being extremely protective of their players to the point of not acknowledging who was present or absent at workouts, and thus not explaining why they weren’t there or when they will be back.

That approach makes sense from their perspective.

Say four players are not seen taking part in a workout. If manager Kevin Cash says two are not there because of injuries or family matters but says he can’t comment on the other two, it makes for a pretty safe assumption it’s for reasons he can’t talk about, such as being COVID-19-related. (Or, potentially, other disciplinary or drug-testing issues, though those are less common and typically do get announced.)

So, not saying anything protects the privacy of the absent players.

But here’s the other side, in actual examples.

Friday, the Rays provided reporters with a list of the player groupings for the workout, as they would any day of any other spring training.

But only 32 of the 37 players assigned to Tropicana Field were listed. Acknowledgement that all players had reported in time for intake testing and clarification that non-roster catchers Chris Herrmann and Kevan Smith had been shifted at least temporarily to work out in Port Charlotte made for an obvious deduction: Infielder Jose Martinez and pitchers Yonny Chirinos and Chaz Roe were missing for another reason the team knew of.

Fueling immediate speculation that COVID-19 issues might be involved.

“Given all of the protocols, guidelines that we’re trying to follow, we’re not going to get into specifics,” Cash said. “There were a variety of reasons as to why we were not at 100 percent attendance.”

Also, the Rays pointed out, some players could be doing conditioning drills or working in the batting cages under the stands and never make it to the field. So, they could be present and not seen on the field, adding further intrigue.

Saturday, the Rays didn’t supply the lists. Between five media members who cover the team on a regular basis, there was consensus that 29 players were visible on the field.

The six missing include the same three from Friday, plus outfielder Austin Meadows (who was seen at Friday’s workout) and outfielder Randy Arozarena and pitcher Tyler Glasnow (who were not).

So now there is speculation about the status of six players that the team won’t address. That may not be fair to the players if they had other reasons — and especially if they were less concerning than a possible COVID-19 infection — to be away.

But in this case, the team’s bigger concern is protecting any players who do have COVID-19-related issues, even if it comes at the expense of those who don’t.

The flawed system puts a lot of people — team officials, players, media — in difficult positions and may lead to more unusual circumstances in this already odd time.

Will team officials encourage players to allow their COVID-19 diagnoses to be made public, especially if they will have an extended absence that others around the team would obviously be aware of and make a secret harder to keep?

Will players take to social media to say they do, or don’t, have it? Will reporters — who no longer have access to the clubhouse or field pregame — have to try to reach out to a player any time he is absent?

And what happens when the season starts and teams place players on the injured list, which has a separate COVID-19 category, with no set day limits? Will there be no disclosure of any injury issues for any player to protect those whose absence of a diagnosis would be an indicator of COVID-19 causes?

Further, is there an obligation to disclose the information so people outside the organization who came in contact with the player are aware? And for fans (and MLB’s partners in the sports gambling business) to know the potential impact on a team? Also, in being secretive, is MLB further stigmatizing a disease that has affected nearly 3 million people?

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman admitted last week it essentially will be a guessing game for media.

“The information I’ve been given is that you’ll be left to try to figure that out,” he said. “Somebody would not be available, they might be down and out, but we might not be able to speak to why, and it would be a speculating circumstance that you would have to use your journalistic superpowers … to determine if there’s anything there or not, or what the circumstance might be.”

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©2020 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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