Their basic job functions have not changed: Ensure the health, well-being and performance of Major League Baseball players.
As their charges try to play through a pandemic, however, the men and women comprising medical, training and strength and conditioning staffs across the major leagues are taking on a slew of tasks they could not have imagined months ago, with far heavier undertones than taping ankles, nursing a hamstring pull or analyzing an MRI.
With one outbreak enough to sink a team and perhaps an entire season, MLB is relying on some of the industry’s most unsung heroes to be the first line of defense against COVID-19 – all around the clock.
“Baseball is a very busy, time-consuming sport,” says Chris Camp, medical director for the Minnesota Twins. “Our athletic trainers and physical trainers work 16-hour days regularly. Doing that, plus adding on all the usual COVID logistics was a very Herculean task to do.
“What they do on a normal basis is a dawn-to-dusk activity. Now, it’s plus COVID. Fortunately for the Twins, they’re some of the hardest working people on the planet.”
The new job descriptions demand nothing less.
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Camp and Amy Beacom, the Twins’ lead primary care physician, have been designated the club’s Infection Control Prevention Coordinators, a daunting job title within MLB’s health and safety protocols with a bullet point of responsibilities.
Most notably: “Monitoring and enforcing compliance with MLB’s and the Club’s infection control and prevention policies through regular audits, observation, checklists, logs, and other methods.”
A team’s ICPC can come from within a club’s staff or contracted externally; the health protocols recommend that the persons qualifications include “experience in a healthcare environment and certification in infection control and epidemiology.”
Epidemiology isn’t the primary background of either Beacom or Camp, who notes most medical personnel within baseball specialize in musculoskeletal medicine and general practice. An informal canvas of various teams suggests a tack many are taking: Deploy qualified personnel who have a familiarity with players and staff and utilize available resources to enhance trainers’ and doctors’ comprehension of infectious diseases.
Since the sport shut down in mid-March, that means a refresher course in epidemiology for many in the game, albeit one that comes with the advantages of working for a major league franchise: Direct access to local department of health officials and even experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, in the Twins’ case, sharing information and best practices with the hometown Vikings, Timberwolves, Lynx and the University of Minnesota.
MLB’s 100-plus page protocols laid out the plan to be executed, including a re-designing of work areas to achieve physical distancing, intake checkpoints and staggered workout times that has players wandering in from sunup to sundown.
And when players and personnel arrived in July for the start of “summer camp,” there suddenly were new dynamics to the relationship with the medical and training staff.
Part traffic cop. Part disease expert. Part mental-health counselor.
When Washington manager Dave Martinez arrives at Nationals Park, the first person he sees is Paul Lessard, the club’s longtime director of athletic training. Instead of a medical update on one of his players, the first thing Lessard offers him is a thermometer.
“And then the first thing I do is talk to those guys and make sure everybody is OK, everybody’s safe,” says Martinez. “They’re on top of every little thing, including the food that we’re eating here that they’re providing. They’ve been amazing. They work diligently together and are on top of everything, constantly on you about your mask.
“They’re here to tell you, ‘Hey, get that mask on,’ and I love it. They’re going to make sure we stay healthy.”
It’s truly a 24/7 relationship. With players getting tested for COVID-19 and occasional delays in results, time is always of the essence. And managers and medical staffers are often sleeping with one eye open, ready for the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call with test results often landing the middle of the night.
First-year Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton finds himself leaning heavily on Todd Tomczyk, the club’s director of sports medicine who has already upended a few blissful slumbers.
Shelton isn’t mad, though.
“I cannot tell you how much I personally appreciate everything he’s done for us in the Pirates organization, because he has not only led the baseball department through it but also the baseball operations and the business side,” says Shelton. “When we’ve had our full staff calls, Todd is the voice. And he’s done an unbelievable job.
“He’s very respectful of my time specifically, but there’s never anything that happens that I’m not aware of. It may be at 12:30 at night. It may be at 6:30, 7 in the morning. But he’s on top of it and because of that, it makes me feel in a good spot every night.”
MLB’s safety plan – and the performance of those executing it – won’t be fully judged, of course, until the season concludes, either by playing through a 60-game schedule and playoffs uninterrupted, or if COVID-19 outbreaks shut it down sooner.
Naturally, mitigating an infectious disease does not offer the up-and-down evaluation that most of baseball’s statistics do. Players are expected to isolate as much as possible away from the ballpark, though many will be living with family members and all will be traveling regionally, albeit with significantly more protections than the general public.
So far, camp results augur cautious optimism. While more than 100 players have tested positive for COVID-19, with 66 publicly acknowledging so, the majority of those cases came before or as players reported to their camps.
Thirteen players tested positive in the first week of every-other-day “maintenance testing,” and that number was more than halved, to six, in the second week. Should that trend line continue, it will boost the chances the season – which begins with opening games Thursday and Friday – gets completed.
To say nothing of the health of family members and the population at large.
“I worry less about the people getting infected today than the people they’re going to impact,” says Dr. Jill Roberts, an associate professor at the University of South Florida and an infectious disease expert. “As a public health professional, I cannot recommend any activity when the population is going to be in contact with each other, but with baseball, you’re looking at outdoor spaces, relatively far apart, you don’t see contact very often.
“It’s actually one of the safer sports you can engage in. If we’re talking football, that’s an entirely different conversation.”
If the season fails, it probably won’t be for lack of preparation. The Twins maintained daily contact with their players during the game’s nearly four-month shutdown, for both training and pandemic-related purposes. Camp and Beacom delegated at least one COVID-related task to every medical and training staff member.
With players and staff hailing from different countries, fostering different ideologies and learning about infectious diseases for the first time, the Twins specifically – and, so it seems, MLB at large – enjoyed an advantage the general public did not.
“Consistent messaging,” says Camp. “Come together, develop a clearly delineated plan that’s been approved by the front office and by Major League Baseball so people hear the same message over and over and over again. It’s made all the changes into new habits.”
Sources from: USA Today