As MLB and its players navigate COVID-19 in 2021, biggest challenge is the mental grind

Pandemic baseball was a wobbly, wildly careening ride all the way through the World Series in 2020, with Major League Baseball and its players learning on the fly, often the hard way.

Those lessons were applied to great effect as the season went on, the league proudly touting a 62-day streak of no positive tests, all the way into Game 6 of the World Series, when Justin Turner turned up positive and later became the object of scorn for an ill-timed celebration.

Now, quicker than you can yank Blake Snell from a quality start, the 2021 season has arrived with a similar, yet perhaps even more daunting challenge.

If 2020 was a 60-game sprint, consider 2021 the ultimate slog, a season that will surely test the mental and emotional well-being of almost any player or staffer.

Tuesday, MLB and the union announced its updated, jointly-bargained health and safety protocols, and they look a lot like the 2020 version, but with some significant updates.

MLB 2021: Baseball releases COVID-19 protocols for new season

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The game will play similarly: Seven-inning doubleheaders and ghost runners in extra innings as necessary.

The restrictions will tighten: Don’t leave your hotel, don’t argue with an ump while wearing your mask beneath your Adam’s apple and don’t gather 10 of your closest friends for an Oscars watch party.

Yet the task will more than double in scope.

Sixty games will become 162, which we all knew, but the footprint of the season is what truly sets 2021 apart from its pandemic predecessor.

For non-playoff teams in 2020, the start of summer camp on July 3 through the Sept. 27 finish took just 90 days.

In 2021, the start of spring training through the scheduled Oct. 3 finale will require 199 days.

The Dodgers and Rays needed 120 days from reporting to finishing the 2020 World Series.

This year’s pennant winners will be under the protocols for a whopping 231 days, perhaps longer if the regular season requires more calendar to complete.

The Dodgers won their first World Series title since 1988.

That is an awful lot of mask-wearing. A staggering amount of curbside pickups. A countless number of times seeing family members from a distance, with a wave and a holler instead of a hug.

Of course, conditions can change along the way. The vaccine is out and about, as you know, and making its way through the population in a maddeningly deliberate fashion.

MLB and other sports leagues have insisted that they can’t, and won’t, skip the line to vaccinate its very young player population and its staff. If that’s the case, and all goes well in the production and distribution of what will hopefully be several vaccines, players could ethically take their place in line sometime late in summer.

That makes this upcoming season a test of wills as mitigation of COVID-19 moves along on parallel tracks.

Can players maintain their discipline and distancing through 40-plus days of spring training, where golf is an approved activity but the hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. will only get longer?

Will the memories of the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ early-season outbreaks that nearly torpedoed the entire season remain front of mind, or will complacency settle in as the coronavirus takes on a more existential threat through months of bubbling?

The virus itself remains the ringleader, what with its myriad variants that so far have challenged but not shattered the efficacy of vaccines. As we learned last summer, MLB can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 but not alter the society within which it operates. If the virus is rampant in a community, it is likely to find its way into baseball’s highly mobile population.

That’s why so many of 2020’s on-the-fly maneuvers are now officially part of the 2021 protocols. The league can unilaterally move individual game sites or uproot franchises entirely if local conditions or government restrictions say so.

(While we’re here, do say hello to your 2021 Dunedin Blue Jays).

And above all, the key words in these protocols might be these: “Mental health and well-being resources will be provided to Players and Club staff by Clubs and the parties throughout Spring Training and the 2021 Championship Season.”

As almost any player or staffer will tell you, the mental challenges of 2020 largely outweighed the physical. A mere 60 games felt like a full season.

We can only imagine what 162, plus an entire spring training, will feel like under these conditions.

But the players, at least, know it can be done. Those that avoided needless socializing in the winter will hopefully realize they can continue to do so, all while playing the game they love.

And if sports are at least a slight microcosm of society, they’ll be like the rest of us, going to a mental four-corners offense and awaiting a shift in this unrelenting, mass-casualty event.

It all starts for real in a week, pitchers working out in shifts, position players gathering for a five-day quarantine, all sailing into largely unknown waters.

We know it is a navigable journey. This one will just be much, much longer.

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