ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Jon Coyles hasn’t had a day off in February – and for good reason.
He’s the Major League Baseball’s VP of Drug, Health and Safety Programs.
One might assume someone in that position would live in New York City or Los Angeles, but Coyles lives in Rochester, and he has for years now.
He and his wife moved here from New York City around the time their daughters were born.
Coyles had attended University of Rochester and University at Buffalo. His wife is also from Buffalo.
He sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about holding a major league job while living in a minor league city.
Adam Chodak: So does that mean you oversee all of those programs?
Jon Coyles: Yes, and work closely with others that work on those programs. So my job is to kind of oversee them. When we’re not in a pandemic I oversee our drug testing and anti-doping and PED programs but over time, primarily because of the relationship between the doctors and experts we get to work with that has morphed into more medical and health programs like our concussion program, tobacco program, different treatment programs and we never thought that we’d be dealing with something like this, but infectious disease generally is an issue within sports because of clubhouse space and amount of time people time together and so myself as well as a few others, those that run our facilities, medical experts that we work with, we kind of formed a task force early on to deal with this issue.
AC: When this started to roll out in February and March, did you think you would still start on time?
JC: I’m an optimist, to a fault, and I think when we started looking into this issue in February, we have a very close relationship with the other leagues, and we also have a presence in Asia and so we were given a heads-up this is coming and speaking with folks from the NBA and from speaking with folks from the NBA and other leagues, they knew this could be something this could impact us. It started off just as informational, educational for ourselves and our teams, but it became apparent pretty early on how we start and when we start. I don’t think anyone thought we’d be in the midst of this now. We were hoping that when the weather got warmer, that’s what our experts were advising us, that this could dissipate if we got this under control at some point during the season, but by the time Spring Training rolled around, we had to shut down. When it was time to open back up, we realized this was something we’d have to deal with for the entire season.
AC: At what point did you realize, you know what we might be able to get a condensed season?
JC: We took our time. Throughout this whole process, this whole situation, we’ve been led by medical experts and it’s been very clear by those that I work for that we’re going to be guided by them and we’re not going to do anything that puts anyone at risk and as part of that playing a shorter season, taking a look at the travel we engage in, taking a look at the time we spend at the ball parks, is something that we were very cognizant of, something we had to adjust to. All the professional sports were impacted by this for sure. The NBA and the NHL, I’m big fans of both, they both had their post-seasons pulled right before they were starting to play. We were the only sport, though, that had to face a full season. So we had to come back and play a Spring Training game, how long do players have to stay infection free? But also how did they stay prepared? The tools of their trade are the elbows and their shoulders, they need to get those ready. We needed to participate in a condensed Spring Training that would not drag things out too long, but wouldn’t create additional health risks. And then we had to fit in a season that would not go overboard from a travel perspective but we were also being advised that by the time November rolls around there could be another issue again – this whole issue of a second spike. Kind of the marching orders, the plan throughout our planning stages was let’s get as many games in as we can possibly play. We had to work with the players association, just like all professional sports in the US our athletes are represented by a union and we have a good relationship with them, a good working relationship and we have to figure out what is the appropriate number of games and we also wanted to make sure if we got to post-season we want to get through that post-season.
AC: You talked about the union, it seems to me as a giant baseball fan there appeared to be a wall at one point and I didn’t know if a season was going to happen. What eventually got everyone passed that line?
JC: I don’t think there was any disagreement that we all wanted to play, but we wanted to do so in a safe way and we had to do it in a way that made economic sense for both players and management, the clubs. From where I sit in the commissioner’s office, we represent the club interest, but with my specific role, I keep out of the economic negotiations. But our medical experts, my counterpart in the players union, there are times that we disagree, but it’s usually on the details, it’s not on the major focus. And I can say throughout this entire process I can say with a lot of confidence we were being driven by player health and safety, that is the shared goal and we’re not going to do anything or even discuss anything and certainly not reach any agreements that would put anyone at risk.
AC: A lot of players wanted play as you noted. Talking about player health, I saw a tweet from David Price at some point where he thought the league was putting other interests above players’ interests. Different from what I saw from other players. What would be your response to that?
JC: At no point would we ever put player health and safety at risk. That’s not what we’re doing and that’s not the guidance we’re receiving, but the commissioner has been very clear, the commissioner has been incredible on this, this is a set of issues that no commissioner has every faced in any professional sports setting. He’s made it very clear from the beginning that no one is being forced to play. And if you don’t want to play, that’s your choice, that’s your right and we’ve had players that have opted out for health reasons, those that may have a preexisting condition and those players that for family reasons or other reasons that are personal to them, they’ve decided to not play and that’s OK and they can come back next year and hopefully next year we won’t be dealing with this at that point.
AC: Why do you feel it was important for the sport to pick up again?
JC: Very good question. For me personally and for our office that’s been a driving force behind this whole ordeal, throughout history, throughout my life, throughout the life of professional baseball the league, the sport has been a kind of representation of the country, kind of instilled in the fabric of the U.S. If you will. Former Commissioner Selig used to always say that baseball is a social institution and I think we realized early on that we have an opportunity here to highlight how to go about this in a safe and effective way, to be able to use our platform to talk about things like proper masking, proper distancing like we’re sitting right here. How do you go back to work in a safe way and keep your employees safe, keeping their families safe. The same way here. This has been a very challenging time for our country, for a variety of reasons. We wanted to develop a plan and I think we have where we can safely go back to work at a time when offices are reopening, schools are reopening, this is one option we’re considering for how you go about doing that, but also just from a pure entertainment standpoint and giving people a break, this has been very challenging the past few months and if you can provide fans of the game or those that are coming to baseball for the first time an opportunity to watch a ballgame on TV for few hours to read about, something to think about that’s not COVID-19 related, I don’t think that can be understated.
AC: It must have been a bit nerve-wracking when everything went down with the Marlins for you in particular.
JC: Absolutely. We have to be realistic. Going into this we knew positive tests were going to be an unavoidable… we’re playing in the midst of a pandemic where we’re dealing with a very infectious disease where we’re talking about groups of men who are traveling together, playing together and we’re not playing out of a bubble. We made a conscious decision early on that because we were starting our season and just the sheer volume of games, the sheer volume of people, a bubble just wouldn’t work so we knew this was going to be not without risk, I guess is the proper way to say it, but the Marlins situation spun out of control rather quickly, but again we got our experts involved early on, we attempted to contain it to the extent possible. It is what it is. I can’t say enough good things, the Marlins dealt with it in stride from ownership on down. The Phillies in particular, most of these situations occurred in the city of Philadelphia and the Phillies could not have been more supportive and offered assistance to their competitor which was great, the city of Philadelphia as well. We got through that and I think the best thing I can say about that situation is that we learned from it, we were flexible, we adjusted to it. Immediately after that occurred, we put out updates to our protocols based upon the learnings from that situation and knock on wood we’ve had a very strong run since then. Again I’ll take the optimistic view, but while the situation with the Marlins was difficult, it’s now behind us. A majority of those players have been medically cleared to return so it’s something we can look at in our rear view mirror, but we have 27 other clubs that have not had a positive test in weeks, the entire season. Hopefully we can avoid many outbreaks, but positive tests are absolutely unavoidable but a vast majority of our clubs are doing an absolutely fantastic job.
AC: What steps were taken after that? I heard a representative was sent to each team or a team had to take on someone to kind of monitor…
JC: Yes, that’s one of the adjustments we made. We added compliance officers. There are already point people at each organization. Each club has a doctor, they have a set of athletic trainers which we are very close with. We made sure without first iteration of our operations manual that an infection control person was appointed at each club, but because we’re not living in a bubble, because we’re not playing in a bubble, the players and club staff are going back and forth to home each night and if they’re on the road, they are not on lockdown even though we advise them to be as cautious with their behavior and conduct as they possibly can be. ***It became apparent that for strict adherence to protocols occurred, that someone to oversee that was necessary. So with respect to club travel, whether it was on the road, in a bus or in the air, in certain instances while individuals are at their hotels making sure they’re into being drawn in by public spaces, they’re not going to restaurants, they’re not going to bars. We give flexibility to the players and to the club staff to engage in certain types of behavior. For example, if they want to go for a run, that’s OK, but if they want to go to the bar, that’s not. And so putting in that compliance monitor was a very important step. One of the individuals who I work very closely with, Brian Seeley, who runs our investigations group, he also oversees club security, he’s been leading a lot of this and it’s just an extra layer of protection to make sure we have very strict and important protocols in place. To the extent that we can try to get guys to comply, that’s the goal.
AC: To state the obvious, you have a rather unique job. How did you fall into it?
JC: So I went to U of R for undergrad and I went to law school up in Buffalo. And after law school my now wife and I decided to take a risk and move down to NYC. The thought was always to try to break into some sports and entertainment law opportunity. Never thought I’d be lucky enough to work in baseball, but the opportunity presented itself pretty early on at the time I was looking for jobs, when I was coming right out of school. Baseball was in the midst of all the anabolic steroids issues with Senator George Mitchell’ investigations and not being a strong place that they are right so a number of opportunities that didn’t previously exist presented themselves in that time frame, so even in New York City, I’ve said this to many people, it is about who you know and if you work hard and do a good job for people, if the opportunity presents itself, you can break into even a tough industry like baseball and I was lucky enough to do that and I also realized early on that if you’re lucky enough to get a job like this, you don’t give it up. And 13 years later, I’m still working there.
AC: How does it work, working for us a major organization that has offices, if you will, all across the country while living in Rochester, N.Y.?
JC: Well, I kept it under wraps for a while and now the cat is out of the bag. It all comes down to having wonderful people that I work with and for. The idea to move up here, which I did about 5 years ago, was a suggestion from the attorney that I work for. And it was one where while the priority in our office is certainly one of hard work and putting in as much time an dedication as you can to the job, family is also important and when children started coming, giving them a situation or a lifestyle that I was looking for was something I communicated and the suggestion to try out a remote working situation came from above so it wasn’t even something that I had to suggest. You have to have flexible people that you work for. I work for some great colleagues that always willing to be my eyes and ears in the office when I’m not physically there, but I think it also comes down to the nature of baseball is a nationwide industry. We have offices in New York, which I do go down to about every week. We have offices in Boulder, CO, we have offices in San Francisco, we have offices spread throughout the country and most of the men and women that I work with do not spend a lot of time in the office, they’re either traveling to meetings or to different games and so the need to all to be in the same place is not really necessary, but I also think it comes down to the individualized nature of my job, we do have a small team in the drug, health and safety world and hopefully after this is done that team will grow, but it is one where I work just as closely with people who are outside of New York as those who are in New York. We have testing laboratories in Montreal, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. I speak to them regularly. We have consultants that live in LA, Kansas City, down in North Carolina, Cleveland so my team and inner circle is spread out pretty significantly so at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter where you work from as long as you’re available at all times. And we also have, I have to give a shout-out to, one of the main reasons it’s been able to work is the incredible ability of our IT department to set it up here where I feel like I’m in the office. I have an office phone, I have all of the infrastructure that’s required where I went a good year without telling anyone I was living up here. It’s one where I was picking up the phone and I had a pretty constant presence down there anyway, but it is one where it’s important to not take advantage of it in an inappropriate way. I would say for the camera that I definitely put more hours in from here than down there because you’re not commuting. So I start my day very early in the morning and I end it very late at night.
AC: How has the move been for you?
JC: Happy wife, happy life for sure. I have 2 beautiful daughters at home. I’ve got a daughter going into second grade, and a daughter going into kindergarten. They love their situation, we have a great neighborhood, we have family that’s close by. I mean, that’s what it’s all about and when you can combine that with a job that’s certainly demanding, but one that I very much enjoy, but I feel it’s important work. In the midst of this pandemic, it’s been a very, very difficult situation for my family because you’re always on, we haven’t had a day off since February, but it’s fine because I do think it’s important and for all the reasons that we talked about earlier, bringing baseball back, providing a sense of entertainment, a distraction for people, you know it wouldn’t be possible without the health and safety protocols and so I think it’s one where we just have to get through this and we can take a break in November.
AC: Thank you very much. I appreciate you chatting with me.