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When disaster strikes: the MLB draft no-one wants to see

On Rule 29, which I hope never gets used.

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Fans Pay Tribute To Brazilian Football Team Chapecoense Following Fatal Plane Crash
Fans Pay Tribute To Brazilian Football Team Chapecoense Following Fatal Plane Crash
Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

On Fanpost Friday, the topic was “What could go wrong for the 2017 Diamondbacks?” There are a host of possibilities, from injury through to simple non-performance - but I started to wonder what the very worst would be, and how major-league baseball would handle it. Outside of the very ludicrous e.g. a meteor strike on Chase Field, the worst scenario is probably something like the situation which befell Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense. They were on route to Medellin for a match against a Colombian side, when their plane crashed. They lost 19 players,

This is far from the only such incident. As a Brit, the one I knew best was the 1958 plane crash involving Manchester United, but they’ve happened often enough, that Wikipedia has a page, List of accidents involving sports teams. In many sports, the reaction from the governing authority is fairly ad hoc. In the case of Chapecoense, they declined special treatment, such as immunity from being relegated to a lower tier, but did accept players on loan from other sides, to help rebuild the team.

The Wikipedia page lists only one incident involving a team from our sport - the 2007 bus crash which killed five members of the Bluffton Beavers college team, along with two drivers. [I’m not sure why it doesn’t include the 1946 bus crash which killed nine members of the minor-league Spokane Indians] However, baseball is prepared for the worst. There is an publication called the Official Professional Baseball Rules Book, which in its 268 pages covers all aspects of the game of Major League Baseball, beyond what happens in the field of play. For example, what happens in the various drafts is laid out: it’s where the “Rule 5” in “Rule 5 draft” comes from.

Rule 29 covers what will happen in the unfortunate eventuality of a Chapecoense-like incident happening to a major-league team. It’s not limited to an accident, however, as an “epidemic illness or other common event” could also trigger it. It does require a certain number of players from the same team to suffer “death, dismemberment or permanent disability from playing professional baseball”: this number is set at five if the team is in active competition, or six during their off-season. It starts by saying MLB can set a mourning period, and will also decide, in consultation with the club, whether the team is able to complete their season.

It then describes the subsequent “Restocking Draft”, also known as a “Rule 29 draft”. In this, the unaffected teams submit a list of five players, who were on their active roster at the time of the accident (or as determined by the commissioner, for example, in the “epidemic illness” situation). But you can’t get away with listing five relievers. The players concerned “shall include one pitcher, one catcher, one outfielder, one infielder and a fifth player of any position.” These quotas may be adjusted by the commissioner, depending on those played by those lost from the affected club. There are also limits on the number of players with less than 60 days service time.

Once the lists have been submitted, the team affected gets to make its choices. They are “entitled to select as many players as it lost in the occurrence, provided that the Disabled Club may select no more than one player from each of the other Major League Clubs.” These choices are subject to passing a physical, and if so, the players then become part of their roster. MLB may subsequently also award them additional relief, “including, for example, the awarding of additional selections in subsequent Rule 4 or Rule 5 drafts, priority on waiver claims for a set period of time and the modification of the deadline for naming a post-season roster.”

It’s basically an exercise in thinking the unthinkable, and Rule 29 has never even come close to being invoked, despite having been in place since 1965 (though MLB refused to discuss its specifics as recently as 2001). There have obviously been tragic individual deaths, most recently the loss of Jose Fernandez. However, the only incident I could find, in which more than one MLB player on the same team was killed, was back in 1993, when Cleveland pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died - curiously, also in a Florida boating accident [Chalk up another reason why the Cactus League is better than the Grapefruit League, I guess...].

The other major professional leagues have something similar in place, though these have never been invoked either, and there are also some differences. For instance, the NBA “disaster draft” would operate the other way, with teams being able to protect five players from selection. The NFL’s has a much stricter definition of “disaster”, requiring 15 players to be lost and the team’s season to be canceled, in order for a draft to take place (in which teams can protect up to 32 players). However, if fewer than 15 are lost, the team can still be given preferential waiver choice capability, and if a QB is lost, they can also draft a third-string quarterback from another team, “on loan” for the rest of the season.

Even as it Rule 29 has been in place and unused since before I was born, it seems almost certain that it will be needed, eventually. But if it’s not needed during the rest of my lifetime either, I think I would be entirely happy with that.