TAMPA — Major League Baseball joined other professional sports leagues Tuesday by banning clubhouse access to media members and other team employees considered non-essential personnel to combat the spread of coronavirus.
The NHL, NBA and MLS are also closing off locker room and dressing room access.
In Japan and South Korea, preseason baseball games are being played in empty stadiums and leagues have postponed the beginning of the regular season.
MLB has no plans to cancel spring training games, which bring fans from across the country to the bay area, and intends to begin the regular season as scheduled later this month.
Asked Tuesday whether he could envision an Opening Day game absent of fans, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said, “I certainly hope not. I don’t envision that.”
Of course, that could change quickly if a government agency would make that recommendation.
Yankees reliever Zack Britton, the team’s players union representative, played in a 2015 game in Baltimore that banned fans following the death and funeral of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old man suffered a fatal spinal cord injury when he was tossed around the back of a police van.
“It wasn’t fun not having your home crowd there playing,” said Britton, who was then the Orioles closer. “It felt like a back field spring training game. It’s not something we’d like to do. If it comes down to it, I don’t think we have a lot of say.”
At Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday, not much had been done to avoid contamination where fans sit in closer proximity to each other than any locker room interaction or along the concourse where money and food exchanges hands. A walk through the Steinbrenner Field concourse Tuesday revealed no hand sanitizer stands. There was one in the press box.
Though media access has diminished over the years in MLB — it’s regularly negotiated into each collective bargaining agreement — Major League Baseball has some of the best access to players in North American professional sports, so reporters covering it are hit hardest by the new rules.
Before the Yankees’ spring training game against Toronto on Tuesday, the team used stanchions to roped off a 7-by-13 foot that the media had to stand behind while interviewing players. As Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo began his pregame routine, reporters were reminded to keep six-foot distance but crept closer so their microphones and recorders could be heard over the stadium music.
The move to limit access caught most personnel — many of whom walked into clubhouses Tuesday not knowing much about the change — by surprise. The players union had no involvement in the decision, Britton said.
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“Kind of above my pay grade,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I heard some buzz about it late last night and showed up this morning. I really don’t understand it all. Kind of in this spot doing what I’m told.”
Last week, when the first cases were diagnosed in Florida, including one in Hillsborough County, players expressed concern about how the virus could spread.
Numerous players touch the same baseball on every play, baseballs rubbed down by clubhouse attendants before the game, sit with other baseballs in an umpires belt bag. They are rubbed by pitchers, who have licked their hands in order to get moisture to gain a better grip. Players touch the same rosin bag and the same pine tar rag, all items they use throughout the game to get a better grip on baseballs and bats.
“I don’t ever think there’s going to be a perfect way,” Britton said. “You come in contact with a lot of people every day. In the past, one guy gets the flu in the clubhouse, there’s a good chance a lot of guys are going to get it. A cold, the same thing. Hopefully, it’s a good first step.”
Members of a team’s travel party, including general managers and assistant general managers, interpreters and clubhouse attendants, are all considered essential personnel by MLB. Scouts are not, and would be affected by the clubhouse ban. Each team has a different definition of which personnel should be considered essential, but MLB expects teams to be judicious in deciding who to allow into clubhouses.
Some members of the Yankees front office and analytics staff who would normally be in the clubhouse weren’t inside there on Tuesday morning.
The Blue Jays have a travel party of about 65 individuals, and Atkins said the team is considering trimming that number.
“There are vendors, our own scouts that are coming and going," Atkins said. "It’s not just the media that’s being limited.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.