Breaking Down 2021 Minor League Operations Manual, Covid-19 Protocols
Many of the restrictions Major League Baseball instituted to ensure a 2020 season could be played during the coronavirus pandemic will filter to the minor leagues this coming season.
The 2021 Minor League Operations Manual has been distributed to major and minor league teams, and it outlines strict regulations about the number of players and staff each team can have, as well as restrictions on what they can do at home and on the road.
The minor leagues are scheduled to begin play on May 4. Minor league players are headed to spring training now that MLB teams are departing from their facilities.
Under the provisions of the operations manual, each MLB team is allowed to have no more than 245 “covered” individuals involved with the minor leagues. Covered individuals can be considered to be roughly similar to Tier 1 individuals in MLB. As such, they will be expected to quarantine in preparation for their arrival to spring training, will be subject to regular coronavirus testing and will be monitored for any symptoms on a daily basis.
That 245-person limit counts players, managers, coaches, bullpen catchers, athletic trainers, physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, clubhouse staff, facility compliance officers and traveling staff. It does not include rehabbing major league players or roving coaches, although the memo notes that the policy for rovers is still being established. For minor league spring training, teams are limited to 215 “covered” individuals.
Broadcasters, traditionally part of a team’s traveling party, will not be permitted to be part of the travel group in 2021 and will not be allowed to be in close physical proximity to any of the covered individuals. Those restrictions will also apply to other media members.
For the season, Triple-A and Double-A teams are limited to 44 covered individuals. High-A and Low-A are limited to 46. There are provisions for the intake of new players who become covered individuals, but the total limits on the number of covered individuals will mean that if a team is at its numerical limit, it will have to drop someone else any time it adds a new covered individual.
The limits are in place in part because those are the individuals who will be sequestered from contact with the general public as much as possible and will be the ones who will receive intake testing as well as close monitoring for coronavirus throughout the season.
There will be a Covid-19 related injury list in the minors this year. Players on that list will not count toward a club’s active list limit or its reserve list limit. They also will not count as one of the covered individuals until they return to team facilities.
Players and staff among the covered group will have significant restrictions on what they are allowed to do.
Teams are expected to set up schedules to ensure that players can dress and get ready in the clubhouse at staggered times to limit the amount of people in an indoor space. There is a suggestion that players, staff and umpires dress at home or at their hotel and arrive in uniform to limit the amount of time they spend inside.
Minor league teams are also being asked to set up outdoor areas separate from the general public for the variety of functions teams do at the facility such as eating, meetings and even waiting out rain delays. Players who are not scheduled to play that night (such as the starting pitcher from the night before) are recommended to leave the stadium before that night’s game. Charting in the stands, long a staple of the pitcher’s schedule, seems to be discouraged if not prohibited under the guidelines.The dugout is expected to be limited to players and staff likely to participate in that day’s game. Other players are expected to be seated in auxiliary seating areas where they can be socially distanced from each other and from the public.
Sunflower seeds, long a staple of the minor leagues, are prohibited. Communal video terminals are also prohibited. Teams will be allowed to open their clubhouses to players and staff 5 hours before game time, but if violations of any minimum standards occur that team will be required to not open the clubhouse until 3 hours before game time.
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On the road, covered individuals (any players and staff who are part of the travel party) will not be allowed to congregate in any public areas of the hotel at which they are staying and are prohibited from visiting the hotel rooms of any other individuals on their team without prior approval of the club’s Covid compliance officer.
Similarly, any player or staff member must receive prior approval from the compliance officer before they can leave the hotel for any reason. The compliance officer will tell the player or staff member whether the trip falls within permitted activities.
Covered individuals will be prohibited from any indoor gathering of 10 or more people, indoor restaurants or dining areas, bars or lounges, gyms, sports clubs, spas or pool areas not affiliated with or approved by MLB, MiLB or the team.
Personal trainers are not allowed to be invited into the covered individuals’ home or to visit them on the road. Live entertainment venues—including music or dance clubs, indoor movie theaters, bowling alleys, arcades, casinos or pool halls—are prohibited. Museum trips are also permitted.
The memo further spells out that covered individuals are not permitted to leave the hotel on road trips other than for a specified list of activities: team activities at the team facility or ballpark, medical reasons, travel with the team, outdoor walks/exercise, eating outdoors or other low-risk outdoor activities or under extraordinary circumstances. It is suggested that golf is an example of a low-risk activity, as long as the facility is within walking distance or can be accessed by club approved transportation.
There will not be batboys or batgirls under the coronavirus protocols. Those duties will have to be handled by club staff and can not be handled by any minors. The protocols also say that players and coaches should not touch their face as part of conveying signs. Spitting is also prohibited.
The memo says that teams should attempt to charter flights instead of using commercial airlines, if possible. On road trips, the memo says that teams should give each player an individual room, if possible, or assign each individual the same roommate for each trip.
The operations manual does not mention whether the MLB team or MiLB club would foot the bill for the significantly higher costs of charter flights. Similarly, it says that teams will need to use three buses per road trip—up from the two required in the Professional Development License spelled out in the agreement MiLB teams signed with MLB—but it does not specify who will be paying for the additional cost of the third bus.
There is some hope among minor league operators that these restrictions may be able to be eased as vaccination rates increase. For now, it means teams will be doing a lot of additional preparation to ensure they are ready for the start of the minor league season.