MLB to relax virus protocols when 85% on field vaccinated

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NEW YORK — Card games, car pools and eating at restaurants may be back in the major leagues later this season. Trips to church and sponsor events may return, too.

Mask use would be dropped from dugouts and bullpens, and electronic tracing devices would be eliminated when 85% of major league players and primary field staff are vaccinated against the coronavirus. Communal clubhouse video would return before and after games. Pool tables would be restored, along with team saunas.

A three-page memorandum from Major League Baseball and the players’ association sent to players and staff on Monday and obtained by The Associated Press also stated “all players and staff are strongly encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.”

“For purposes of this memo, individuals are considered `fully vaccinated’ two weeks after receiving their second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) or two weeks after their first dose of a single dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson),” the memo stated.

Not many players have been vaccinated, according to MLB, but it expects the pace to increase after teams return to their home cities from spring training. Opening day is Thursday.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros said Monday their players will be offered vaccines before openers and the San Francisco Giants said some of their players already had received vaccination shots.

MLB’s Tier 1 restrictions in place since last summer cover players, managers, coaches, bullpen catchers, team physicians, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches.

While clubhouse video rules would loosen before and after games, in-game use will remain covered by rules restricting in-game use to MLB-issued iPads with catcher’s signals blocked, regulations put in place in response to the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.

Once the 85% threshold is reached, fully vaccinated players and staff would be able to eat and drink on flights. They would be able to gather in indoor spaces such as hotels without masks or social distancing as long as non-vaccinated people aren’t present, and they would be able to carpool or use Uber or Lyft. The relaxation would not apply to gatherings in group facilities at ballparks, such as clubhouses.

Fully vaccinated people who have close contact with someone with COVID-19 would not have to quarantine unless they exhibit symptoms.

Vaccinated players and staff would have the option to reduce PCR saliva testing to twice weekly, similar to Tier 2 staff, such as front office and clubhouse employees, owners and groundskeepers.

Family members who are fully vaccinated and children who are not vaccinated would be able to stay with players and staff in hotel rooms during road trips, though MLB and the union cautioned that the Centers for Disease Control advised not to use commercial travel and to stay home unless necessary. Families also would be able to sit anywhere in ballparks and not be restricted to pods, subject to local laws and policies.

Players and staff would be able to meet outdoors with anyone on road trips, eliminating the restriction limiting them to household and family. They also would no longer be required to let club compliance officers know when they are leaving team hotels, and they would be allowed to stay at personal homes on road trips without a need for family quarantines or testing.

While attending religious services would be allowed, attending outdoor services would be encouraged.

Indians manager Terry Francona, who recently received his second vaccine, was pleased there weren’t many issues associated with the coronavirus during camp.

“You really haven’t heard a whole lot about it,” said Francona, who was aware of the memo but said he hadn’t read through it. “In the beginning, I think everybody had their hopes up that when we get here you could just go back to normal. It took a few days for everybody to realize that’s not the way it’s going to be.

“The rules are in place. We’ve told them, whether you agree or disagree, if you have a positive, you’re going to get sent home and probably take somebody with you.”

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.