Playing sports during a pandemic presents numerous challenges, some of which can be handled through social distancing. But what happens when some positions can’t do so. Catchers face this particular obstacle. Even with the MLB’s ban on spitting, they may be at a higher risk of contracting the virus and spreading it.
“What you’ve got there is a hitter and an umpire, each of them doing different things,” said microbiologist Dr. Dean Hart, who spent 25 years as an Associate Research Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“An umpire yelling at the top of their voice, ‘Strike!’ That is going to project COVID if the umpire is carrying it. Then the catcher in its unique position. When [batters are] gathering up their energy to swing at a baseball, they’re exhaling hard. If one of [the batters] is positive, you could get the right angle for a hitter — whether you hit or miss, you’re exhaling hard. That’s the proper environment to catch it.”
Concerns continue to rise as at least 17 Miami Marlin players have reportedly tested positive. The cause of the outbreak is still unknown and the MLB has canceled the team’s games until at least Sunday.
Among the players who’ve tested positive is Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro. Alfaro is one of at least four catchers across the league believed to have tested positive. Kansas City Royals catchers Salvador Perez, Cam Gallagher and Nick Dini have also missed time due to COVID-19. Additionally, Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnoud, the Atlanta Braves catchers, were held out with coronavirus symptoms, but both have yet to test positively.
Even with this information, it’s not possible to accurately identify trends within the MLB when it comes to COVID-19. This is due in part because of a policy that states teams are not required to disclose names of players with positive test results. So while it seems catchers are more at risk, Hart said the sample size is not large enough to confirm.
Chris Magno said he wouldn’t be overly concerned if he was still playing. Magno served as the starting catcher for the University of Miami’s 1985 national championship team.
“You’re still outside, so the air is circulating,” Magno said. “I don’t know if I’d be worrying about it.
“You never really think about that stuff or never did. You’re close enough to kind of look in the [batter’s] eye and take a peek at what he’s looking at and you give your signals and you don’t really think about germs coming in from a person’s mouth. You certainly don’t think about what’s behind you, which it the umpire. They’ll put your hand on your back, but they’re basically breathing into the back of your helmet, so you don’t really feel like that’s getting to you.” Though Magno expressed that wearing a cloth mask during the heat and physical exertion of a game could be a hindrance, he does believe there are other solutions.
“[You could] rig something up where you’re not wearing a mask inside the [catcher’s] mask, but you’re wearing a plexiglass shield over your nose and mouth instead of over your eyes,” Magno said. “You can put the sunglasses shield, like an Oakley shield if the sun’s coming in from center. I’ve had those before. If you had that over your mouth and nose, that might help a little bit.
“But at the end of the day, if I’m 25 years old, out playing in the open air, I’m probably not worrying about it too much.”
In general, MLB is going to face more risk due to the lack of a “bubble environment”. Unlike the NBA and NHL, teams are traveling across the country and staying in hotels, causing players to be more susceptible. Even with testing almost every other day, it’s hard to control the outside factors.
Dr. Rand McClain, a sports medicine expert who treats professional athletes and serves as the Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health, agrees there are additional risks by not adhering to a bubble.
“The catcher is technically more at risk, but he really shouldn’t be that much more at risk because of all the [testing] protocols set up so that everyone who enters into the league should be disease free, but we’re finding out that’s not the case,” McClain said.
“I think it’s pretty well known, most transmission occurs at home. Dad or Mom has to come home from work every day. If they bring it home, then the family’s screwed, and that’s the way it has to be looked at with Major League Baseball. Someone doesn’t execute, somebody breaks the rules — ‘It’s just a half hour guys; let’s get a quick drink down the street.’ That’s where it goes wrong, and then anyone’s at risk.”