June 13, 2021

Baseball confronts a postponed season and a chilling, uncertain spring (The Athletic)

Even in this most scaled-down form, in a simulated game played in a simulated version of Fenway Park, baseball made it possible to suspend reality. On Thursday morning, there were no outward signs of pandemic. A group consisting mostly of Red Sox minor leaguers ran hard to impress their bosses. A crowd of about 50, a mishmash of scouts, media, team staffers, tour groups and a few fans, indulged in the game’s soothing comforts. But on a day unlike any other in the history of baseball, that facade came tumbling down.

Major League Baseball canceled spring training and delayed the start of the season by at least 14 days. The decision effectively shuttered a $10.7 billion industry and shut down an institution that once played through a world war.

“This is when society gets together and helps each other out,” Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “Out of this, hopefully we can get something positive and that will be all being in a much better spot when it comes to taking care of each other. At times, it seems we’re not at peace with each other. I think now, we have a really good chance of helping each other out, being there for each other and being good Samaritans, helping others and looking out for each other.”

Similar words of concern flowed from every camp.

Reactions encompassed questions about logistics: When the season would resume, if a second spring training would be required, whether it would be possible to keep working out in the interim. But they also drifted into territory beyond the field.

‘We all love baseball and we’re all grateful to play, but if it’s at the expense of risking the lives of many people, you have to have perspective,” said Hunter Pence. “Let’s do this the right way. It’s not like, `Oh you know, let’s risk something horrible or someone losing a loved one so we can play baseball and have a full stadium.’ Whatever we’ve got to do let’s do it and support it and be strong together as a country and as a world.”

“Guys have obviously been talking about it,” the Rays’ Brendan McKay said. “A couple of cases have popped up in the Florida area and around here. For me, I’ve gone up to Tampa, and my girlfriend works in a hospital. Do I know if she’s come in contact with anybody? She might not even know. It’s a little scary.”

It was a sobering contrast to how the week began. On Monday night, the league issued restrictions barring media and other non-essential personnel from clubhouses; rough guidelines followed, including an edict to conduct group interviews outside of a 6-foot perimeter. But for the most part, the new restrictions were greeted as a simple change in routine. Even those who attempted compliance found themselves drifting closer to those who asked questions. Phillies star Bryce Harper joked about hugging a reporter. He insisted that he would live his life outside the ballpark with no changes and noted that he is 27 years old and healthy, in the prime of his life, precisely the group that seems least vulnerable to the virus.

Around the batting cages, players spit their dips, exchanged hugs and traded handshakes, same as always. “I think the media kind of hypes up the coronavirus,” said the Rays’ Blake Snell. Another player wondered, in passing, if the virus was a hoax.

The pandemic was not treated as a laughing matter, per se; there were acknowledgments by Harper and many others that these were uncharted waters. But overall, the reaction did not seem rise to the level of what Major League Baseball would later call a “national emergency.”

The tone shifted Wednesday night. The NBA suspended its season. A major domino had fallen, and a sense of inevitability surged through baseball. “It’s going to get ugly,” said one scout, still reeling from a team-issued directive to stay home effective immediately. Another questioned why his team had yet to take a similar action.

By then, the connectivity that the virus depends upon for its spread became even more apparent. Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus. So, too, did his superstar teammate Donovan Mitchell. His father, Donovan Sr., is a longtime employee of the Mets. He had recently attended a Jazz game at Madison Square Garden on March 4. In a statement, the Mets said that Donovan Mitchell Sr. had been instructed not to report to the team’s facility. He will be tested for coronavirus. In another example of the connections between the professional sports, one executive noted that it’s not uncommon for baseball teams to use the same charter planes used in basketball.

By Thursday afternoon, nearly every team had grounded its scouts. Team owners convened on a conference call. The outcome came into focus. There could be no denying a sense of inevitability.

“We all recognized the severity of the situation and how serious it could potentially become,” Ryan Braun said Thursday morning. “But when the NBA takes a drastic measure like that, and proactive leadership stance by doing that, I think it felt like the other leagues would follow suit. When that happened, I think we all recognized that it was likely that MLB would be next.”

In Florida, scheduled games went off as planned, but it was clear that a seismic shift was in the offing. “We kind of figured this was going to be our last game,” Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. In Arizona, the day began with team meetings in which players were briefed on various contingencies.

“It’s really scary for us,” Braun said. “A lot of fans probably don’t recognize how hard it is for us to be separated from our families or how often our families have to move. A lot of guys have an offseason house, a spring training house and then a regular-season house. There’s a lot of moving parts for all of us and our families are obviously our top priority, so it’s a complicated dynamic on a lot of levels.”

Questions emerged about whether players would remain in camps or disperse, whether they’d be able to prepare properly when the season resumes, and whether they would be paid. Answers were scarce. “We’re going to try and stick together, I think that’s the plan,” said the Diamondbacks’ Stephen Vogt. “Keep this a habitat that’s healthy.” Club officials later reiterated that stance. In other camps, initial plans weren’t as clear. Some instructed players and media to stay home Friday. Others did not offer direction.

“We’re experiencing something that is extremely, extremely wild,” said Rockies manager Bud Black, who struck a reassuring tone. “And we’re living it, really, minute to minute, with all the decisions that are being made. So we’re just observing and, obviously, we’ll be ready for anything. Rule No. 1: Be ready for anything. I told that to the players. And also, Rule No. 2: Everything is going to be OK.”

In Fort Myers, the simulated game represented the potential for an eerie new reality. During the shutdown, this might be the only form in which major league baseball exists, with teams staying sharp with scrimmages in empty ballparks.

At 3:08 p.m. Eastern time, Major League Baseball made the decision official, and the rejuvenating warmth of the spring had been replaced by a chill. Spring training would be suspended at 4 p.m. The start of the regular season would be delayed. In 1918, with the first world war raging, baseball condensed its season. In 2001, 9/11 postponed play for a week. But outside of labor stoppages, pushing back a season is unprecedented.

“We want to go out there and we want to play,” Kiermaier said. “But at the same time, lives are at risk, and looking at the bigger picture we need to stay clear of everyone out there because this is just how crazy this thing is.”

Andrew Baggarly, Zach Buchanan, Nick Groke, Zack Maisel, Will Sammon and Josh Tolentino contributed to this report.

(Photo: Norm Hall / Getty Images)

Marc Carig is a senior writer for The Athletic. Before moving to national MLB coverage in 2019, he spent the previous 11 seasons covering the Orioles (’08), Mets (’12-’17) and Yankees (’09-’12, ’18). His work has appeared in Baseball Prospectus, the Newark Star-Ledger, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcCarig.

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