In a normal year, my son and I would have been to at least three or four minor-league games by now. We would have watched enough baseball games on TV that the non-baseball-obsessed people in the house would be longing for the end of the season. As it stands, the best we can do this year is keep an eye on the “summer camps” the teams are having and counting down the days until baseball comes back.
As a baseball fan, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this season. I’m nervous, first and foremost. I don’t want a player, coach, umpire or someone else in baseball to get seriously ill or worse because of COVID-19. I’m also excited, because I love baseball and have missed watching it. Then I feel guilty, because players are risking their health to play a game for my enjoyment. It’s just a really weird time to be a baseball fan.
The question then becomes, how to minimize the risk? How can Major League Baseball and each team ensure the health of everyone involved, so that we can sit back and enjoy the game without worrying about the risk? I think the game can take a page from the small meat processors across the country – the ones who have put the safety of their people ahead of their productivity and their profit.
First of all, keeping the team healthy is truly a team effort. You, as a meat plant owner (or a ballclub owner) can take every precaution, but one careless team member can undo it all by ignoring social distancing guidelines and mask wearing once they’re away from the workplace. It’s impossible to mandate behavior outside of the workplace, but it can be stressed that each person must take responsibility for their actions to ensure the safety of everyone else.
Secondly, every aspect of the business must be examined to ensure that it’s safe. Meat companies changed the way they lay out their workplace, the way the handle the customers, the way they take breaks. Baseball teams hopefully have done the same. Can you imagine 25 men gathered in one small locker room, breathing heavily after a game, without masks? Or a group of unmasked ballplayers sitting on benches in dugouts, shouting encouragement to their teammates? That normal baseball behavior becomes a nightmare virus-spreading scenario today. No, the locker room and dugouts can’t be gathering places in the COVID era. They have to be pass-through areas where people can come and go but never linger.
If there is just one lesson that a sports executive should take away from the meat industry, it’s this: treat your employees as people, and not commodities. They are not expendable assets. I think the small plants follow this philosophy extremely well. When I talked to small business owners before the pandemic, they called their employees “team members” or “family” to emphasize the fact that they’re something more important than hired help. Since then, they’ve taken precautions to keep their employees safe or, if there is a positive case in a plant, measures to prevent the illness from spreading.
Hopefully, if baseball does nothing else, it will focus on this last point. Everybody on the team, from the highest-paid superstar to the newest clubhouse attendant is more than an asset to be managed. They are people, with families and future, and it is the responsibility of the owner to make sure that their workplace is a safe place.