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MLB Life Put on Hold amid Rising Coronavirus Concerns

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 12, 2020

Oakland Athletics minor league manager Scott Steinmann fills-out a line-up in the MLB team's dugout next to a bottle of hand sanitizer before a spring training baseball game against the Seattle Mariners Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Eeriness is the prevailing condition right now throughout spring training camps.

What do you do when you have no idea what's coming next?

"Oh, man," San Francisco Giants outfielder Alex Dickerson quipped Wednesday morning on his way out to the fields. "This is where they've quarantined all of you?"

Four or five of us reporters were lined up against the wall outside of the Giants clubhouse under a narrow overhang, attempting to stay dry during a heavy rain. It wasn't actually a "quarantine" situation. But with media and anyone who isn't a player or "essential employee" currently barred from clubhouses as Major League Baseball and pretty much everyone else work to address the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly nobody is quite sure where to go or even how the game gets back to normal.

On the back fields over at the Chicago White Sox camp in Glendale, Arizona, on Tuesday, two players were about to take a golf cart over to the clubhouse following a morning workout when star shortstop Tim Anderson hitched a ride, standing on the back of the cart, where the clubs normally go. As they drove on a pathway with dozens of fans behind fences on either side, Anderson smiled wide and called out to them: "Wash your hands! Wash your hands!"

Then, past the fans, Anderson kept hollering the same advice to random teammates too.

Every day brings more alarming news about COVID-19. Every hour delivers more unwelcome changes, decisions made to slow transmission rates of the virus. 

About the time Dickerson kidded us reporters, San Francisco mayor London Breed was announcing that large public events with 1,000 or more people in attendance would be prohibited in the city. Shortly afterward, the Giants announced their March 24 Bay Bridge Series home game against Oakland would not take place, though alternate arrangements have not yet been announced. On Thursday, MLB announced that the remainder of spring training would be canceled for all teams and the regular season moved back by at least two weeks.

"You have to trust the higher powers who are making these decisions that are more informed than all of us are," Giants catcher Buster Posey said. "Just roll with it. Do what you do for the time being. Hopefully you put your trust in people who are making good decisions for the whole."

At Cincinnati's camp in Goodyear, Arizona, the Reds advised their players to avoid signing autographs, shaking hands or having any other kind of personal interactions with fans. To most players, that's a foreign concept at this time of year.

Baseball lifers are fond of repeating that the best thing about the game is that every single day you have a chance to see something you've never seen before.

Well, nobody has ever seen anything like this. 

Walking into the White Sox complex early the other morning, it was impossible not to be overcome by the strangest of feelings: For the first time in memory, the clubhouse was off-limits to those chronicling the game.

When Sox manager Rick Renteria met the media outside later that morning, he sat at a picnic table, and a team media relations staffer asked the group to keep "a safe distance" from Renteria. As recommended to all clubs by MLB, in group settings, a distance of six feet of separation should be maintained until further notice. In one-on-one interviews, regular conversational distance is OK. The varying logistics feel awkward and a work in progress.

The spread of the coronavirus has prompted Major League Baseball to impose provisions that call for a greater physical distance between players and those outside the team.
The spread of the coronavirus has prompted Major League Baseball to impose provisions that call for a greater physical distance between players and those outside the team.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

At the end of a long conversation with budding White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, I started to offer a hand—then clumsily pulled back as Giolito extended his. I asked whether he was still a hand-shaker, and he said yes. So we shook.

In this atmosphere, both in baseball and, clearly, beyond, we are all rethinking even the most natural and mundane of movements.

It's difficult and uncomfortable for all.

Or, as third baseman Kris Bryant exclaimed Wednesday upon driving back to Cubs camp in Mesa, Arizona, from his Las Vegas home and an ultrasound appointment with his pregnant wife ("Everything's good"): "This is really weird. This is really strange."

He was sitting behind a microphone at a table in the team's media workroom, with the various reporters and camerapeople in a half-circle in front of him, yes, six feet or so back.

"We're all willing to accept what's keeping us safe and what's keeping everyone else safe," Bryant said. "The situation is not ideal, but we'll work through it.

"I think we all need to take precautions. I have a lot of family members who are older, too, and I'd like to keep them safe."

Before Thursday's announcement, spring training attendance hadn't seemed overly affected. Attendance is down a tick, but most people around the game believe it was because spring games are being played earlier in the month because of the previously scheduled March 26 Opening Day. 

Everyone is cooperating in these first, awkward days. Team PR departments are bringing players, as requested, out of the clubhouse for interviews, and reporters are keeping their distance.

But it's not just the media coverage of the game that has been altered. Those who have been deemed nonessential personnel for the purposes of these protocols and disallowed from clubhouses include shoe representatives, bat reps, sunglass salespersons—all of the various roving equipment and fashion folks who weave their ways through camps each spring, supplying players with the latest goods and making money themselves.

Spring camps feel emptier now. It can be unsettling. And the players aren't necessarily enjoying the space and quiet.

T-Mobile Park in Seattle will be empty on what was supposed to be Opening Day—the Mariners moved their opening series due to concerns about the coronavirus.
T-Mobile Park in Seattle will be empty on what was supposed to be Opening Day—the Mariners moved their opening series due to concerns about the coronavirus.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It's [not] something we're used to," Posey said. "But at the same time, back to my first point, we roll with it for now and hopefully it's one of those things where we're back to normal sooner rather than later."

When that will be, nobody has a clue. The Mariners announced that a season-opening seven-game homestand against Texas and Minnesota later this month will be moved out of Seattle. Across sports, the impact is being felt. And in addition to the NBA suspending its season Wednesday, the NCAA has canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments, and the NHL announced Thursday that its regular season would be paused.

Opening Day is now four weeks away…or is it? That question is still very much up in the air.

And while the new restrictions may not seem onerous, they are sure to have impacts on the coverage of the game once play resumes. Clubhouse access is vital to gaining the kind of intimacy with players that allow them the comfort to reveal something of themselves beyond the numbers and the highlights. It allows them to show their humanity.

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto explained the importance of proximity between the media and players when he was asked in an interview with Cincinnati reporters about whether there is value in having media members in the clubhouse.

"I'd say a vast majority of the stories involve nuance, emotion, personal relationships," Votto said, according to Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Even if they are incorrect, a perception of how someone reacted or how a player reacted can be told in a facial expression or getting to know that person and tone.

"I think if you don't have that on a daily basis, you don't get to share those insights and, frankly, most fans don't care about the balls and strikes, runs and wins—well, I guess wins. They care about the person. They want to feel like they are close to the performer in any sport. I think that everyone in the media is the bridge that connects the athlete to the public. Without that close proximity, I personally don't think that you get that very human component."

Clearly, the stakes for humanity right now are far greater than determinations of whether nonessential personnel are admitted to baseball clubhouses or whether games are played in empty stadiums or whether the games are even played at all. Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish was concerned enough about a looming pandemic that he spoke with club officials as soon as he arrived in Arizona last month and canceled a couple of public appearances over the winter, including one for which he agreed to pay a $10,000 cancellation fee.

As this all plays out in directions few could have imagined as recently as a week or two ago, we can only hope lives are protected, infections are contained and normalcy returns for all soon. In schools, at offices and, yes, in arenas and stadiums.

"People need to be considerate toward each other," Bryant reiterated. Citing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scrub hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, he said, "Wash your hands. Sing 'Happy Birthday' twice. Sing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'

"Sing whatever song you want. Just be considerate."

   

(*Editors note: This article has been updated with Thursday's announcement that spring training is canceled and Opening Day has been pushed back two weeks.) 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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