In a pandemic-shortened regular season dedicated to risk management, with bans on everything from fans to spitting, the Major League Baseball schedule unveiled Monday arguably forces each team to take five more trips than necessary.
"You want to minimize travel, absolutely," said Dr. Dena Grayson, a Florida-based pandemic expert. "That would help to decrease the risk."
Each team plays 10 games against each of the other four teams in its division. However, rather than split those 10 games into a five-game home series and a five-game road series, the league has divided them into three series.
And, even though each team plays a home and road series against no more than two interleague opponents during the traditional 162-game season, this 60-game schedule compels teams to play a home and road series against three interleague opponents.
The Los Angeles Angels take two trips to Oakland and two to Arlington, Texas, for instance. The Los Angeles Dodgers play home and road series against the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners -- in the latter case, playing the Mariners in Los Angeles on a Monday and Tuesday, flying to Seattle for games Wednesday and Thursday, then flying back to Los Angeles on Thursday night.
The Dodgers will travel 10,291 miles, the ninth-most in the majors, while the Angels will travel 10,457, seventh-most.
Each trip means increasing the personal interactions that can maximize exposure to the virus, Grayson said. The two-game series are particularly problematic, she said, because players can be infected before they are tested and unknowingly carry the virus to another city.
"You're basically amplifying the ability of this virus to spread, which is the last thing that needs to get done," Grayson said. "If Major League Baseball really wants to try to have a season, which I think is going to be challenging at best, it would be wise to reduce travel as much as possible."
Those factors were considered as the league office negotiated with the players union, which is required to approve the schedule. The parties also considered whether too many days in the same city might increase the temptation for a player to leave his hotel room, making it more likely that he could contract the virus from exposure within the community.
In addition, according to a league official, the parties were concerned about whether fans would tune in for five-game series against opponents that aren't rivals.
Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta, said the MLB travel protocol appeared reasonable.
"Every time you travel could add some risk," Binney said. "But we haven't been able to trace any outbreaks back to planes. Not one. So, if you're somewhat spread out and wearing masks, and the plane -- like most planes -- is equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency) filters that can filter out the virus when the air circulates, the additional risk may not be that high for spread within the team."
Binney agreed with the logic of not keeping players in the same hotel room for five or six days.
"The biggest concern is the time you're spending in the market," he said. "There's more chances for somebody to get feisty and leave the hotel, for example, and then spread the disease from one market to another.
"If you think you can keep them in the hotel for three days twice, I think I would trade a plane trip for that."
Angels manager Joe Maddon said the team must "secure our perimeter," including plane rides and hotel stays, but said he is confident the league's travel plans have been "well thought out."
Said Maddon : "I have to have confidence. I have to believe that. If I don't believe that, then don't do this. Either you believe it or you don't, and I do."
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