How MLB players, execs and others are facing coronavirus uncertainty


Last Monday, Major League Baseball closed its clubhouses to media members. By Wednesday, scouts were being pulled off the road. On Thursday, an announcement stated that the regular season would be delayed by at least two weeks. Before Friday came to an end, spring training operations were officially suspended. And on Sunday, the first professional baseball player — a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees‘ system — tested positive for COVID-19.

The coronavirus outbreak that progressed to a global pandemic and feels as if it has halted most of human civilization has canceled sports in ways that feel unsettling and unprecedented. Baseball, bracing for its first shortened season since 1995, has been caught flat-footed by a crisis that continues to grow at breakneck speed, forced to make momentous, life-altering decisions on the fly.

Everyone with ties to the industry — from executives to coaches to scouts to players to vendors — has been severely affected in different ways. They seem confused, jarred, anxious and unsettled, as evidenced here.

The executive

Perhaps no team was looking forward to real, meaningful baseball more than the Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of one of the deepest, most talented lineups in history. Opening Day would mark the highly anticipated start to a season with Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger patrolling the same outfield, the symbolic end to any lingering thoughts about how L.A. might have been cheated out of a World Series title or two.

Now the Dodgers must wait, like everybody else, while at the mercy of bigger, more important matters of public health and safety around the globe. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, hadn’t had any time to lament a delayed start to the 2020 season or consider the bigger picture when he spoke on a conference call late Friday afternoon.

His days had been too consuming.

“Trying to figure out how to do things in the most responsible, supportive way for our players, for our staff, for the community that we’re in right now” — that is taking precedence, Friedman said. “All 30 teams are going through this together, as well as the country, and that’s where our focus and attention is right now.”

On Thursday, after MLB announced that the regular season would not start on time, the Dodgers’ pitching coaches came up with ideas for how to navigate the complexities of keeping their pitchers’ arms in shape without overworking them. On Friday, Friedman met with players and coaches and tried — often unsuccessfully — to answer a litany of lingering questions. On Saturday, he was set to meet with the minor leaguers and defer similarly.

In the meantime, traveling secretary Scott Akasaki was working to get a handle on which players would remain at the team’s spring training complex, which would eventually work out at Dodger Stadium, and which would simply return home. The Dodgers’ goal, Friedman said, was “facilitating” their desires, not nudging them in any one direction. Eventually, they hope to split the coaching staff between Glendale, Arizona, and Los Angeles so that players at both of the Dodgers’ facilities would be taken care of.

“Hectic,” Friedman said when asked to describe what these past few days had been like. “There’s obviously a lot going on for all of us, and there are a lot of different aspects involved for us that we are thinking through and working through. We obviously have hourly employees. We have over 300 people, staff and players, at [Camelback Ranch] that we are trying to figure out the best way to move forward. It’s certainly not cut and dry, and we’re just working through it and trying to make sure that there’s as much clarity as we can provide to everybody that’s here.”

The scout

Tim Huff was watching the Chicago Cubs play the San Diego Padres in Mesa, Arizona, on Wednesday night when he saw two other scouts rise from their seats and abruptly exit. Moments later, Huff received a phone call from Mike Rikard and Gus Quattlebaum, who oversee pro scouting for the Boston Red Sox. Huff, like the rest of his colleagues, was instructed not to attend any more baseball games.

Huff resides locally, but several of his friends, particularly those on the amateur side, were called off the road and told to return home immediately. The next afternoon, MLB announced that spring training games were suspended and that the start of the regular season would be delayed by at least two weeks.

By Friday morning, Huff wasn’t sure what to do with himself.

“We’re pretty much creatures of habit,” he said. “This time of year, our bodies are telling us we need to be at the ballpark, scouting, getting on planes, that type of thing.”

Huff was thinking primarily about his two sons. His older son, Kody, is playing baseball at Stanford University. His freshman season had seemingly come to an abrupt end after 29 games. Huff initially wondered whether he’d need to pick him up — and he decided he’d do so on Tuesday. Then, after school officials encouraged students to get off campus as soon as possible, Huff drove 11 hours to Palo Alto, California, to get Kody on Saturday night — two days before his younger son, Kade, was expected to learn the fate of his sophomore season at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Huff, who’s responsible for scouting 19 different organizations this year, had already mapped out his schedule until the middle of July. He did it in coordination with Kody and Kade so he could maximize the amount of time he sees his boys play, as usual.

“Now,” Huff said, “everything is up in the air.”

Red Sox pro scouts were going to watch the Dominican Summer League this year, but the prospect of a condensed schedule and the potential hazards of international travel make that task seem unrealistic. Huff wonders how much time teams will get to ramp up again for the upcoming season. And he can’t even begin to think about when Opening Day might come.

In the meantime, Huff will stay busy mostly by watching video of the players he hopes to see up close throughout the summer. He has two new teams to scout this year, the Cubs and Texas Rangers, and will use this time to get better acquainted from his home office. Because he’s a salaried employee, he doesn’t have to worry about not getting paid while professional baseball is on hiatus.

In that regard, he’s among the lucky ones.

The minor leaguer

The Chicago White Sox held a team meeting on Friday morning, as did practically every other team. It went long. Difficult questions were asked. Definitive answers were elusive.

“It was an interesting meeting,” said Andrew Romine, a veteran utility infielder who joined the team on a minor league contract this offseason. “It went a lot further than just ‘keep washing your hands’ and ‘don’t get sick.'”

Romine, who appeared in 581 major league games from 2010 to 2018, worked valet every offseason until he began earning a comfortable salary, and finds himself increasingly sympathetic toward minor leaguers these days. The longer this season is delayed, the longer players will go without receiving a paycheck, which could cripple most of those who have yet to reach the big leagues. It has forced some to consider odd jobs that only heighten their risk of becoming infected.

“I know a lot of people that couldn’t continue baseball because they couldn’t make enough in the minor leagues,” Romine said, “and now you’re talking about them not even getting that pay.”

Romine himself doesn’t know whether he’ll begin this season with the White Sox or with their Triple-A affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina. But he’s 34 now, having carved out a healthy career that allowed him to earn a good living. He’s more worried about the others — about the young minor leaguer with a shallow bank account, about the stadium worker who needs the wages from these next few weeks to pay bills, about the teammates whose wives and children live elsewhere and are suddenly hesitant to fly.

It all came up in Friday’s meeting, but, as Romine said, “Nobody really had any set-in-stone answers.”

“It’s really just surface stuff right now, and it’s kind of scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen — if it’s gonna explode and becomes worse, or if we’re gonna start getting it under control.”

Shortly after the White Sox met, MLB announced that spring training camps were suspended, giving players the option of returning home, traveling to their team’s home city or continuing to train at their respective spring training complexes. Romine, who recently moved his residence from California to Arizona, planned to continue working out at the White Sox facility. But on Sunday, after MLB sent a memo that barred teams from holding organized workouts, Romine decided he needed to train on his own, at least until MLB commissioner Rob Manfred provided another update Monday morning.

Romine will nonetheless continue to field grounders and take swings, treating this time like an extension of the early portion of spring training. It’s easier for position players, who can stay close to game-ready without subjecting themselves to injury.

For pitchers, it’s tricky.

The starting pitcher

Andrew Heaney tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his first start of 2016. He spent all of that year and most of the next rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. In 2018, he dealt with residual elbow inflammation. In 2019, it was a bone bruise. But this year, he was completely healthy. At 28 years old, he was finally ready to come into his own. The Los Angeles Angels validated that sentiment by naming him their Opening Day starter, an honor typically bestowed on a team’s best and most reliable starting pitcher.

Then the coronavirus put the upcoming baseball season in jeopardy.

Upon hearing the news that the start of the season would be delayed, Heaney turned to his wife, Jordan, and could summon only incredulous laughter.

“I was like, ‘What the hell?!'” Heaney said in a phone conversation. “Look, I get it. I’m understanding of the whole process and why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’m in support of that. It just sucks.”

Heaney doubles as a union rep, which means his time has been spent not only figuring out his own situation but also keeping his teammates informed on an ever-evolving issue. He recently switched his smartphone off vibrate mode so he wouldn’t miss any messages, and he has tried his best to relay information as quickly and accurately as possible.

As of Friday night, Heaney didn’t know where to spend the next few weeks. His Arizona lease was set to expire by the end of next week, and a new apartment awaited him in Orange County. The logical approach was to move his workouts to Angel Stadium, which will be open to players while MLB remains shut down. But Heaney didn’t know which of his teammates would join him, or whether any coaches would be there, or whether he would even have a catcher to throw to.

By this point, Heaney would typically be ramping up for the start of the regular season. He would progress to four-inning starts, then five, then six, building his arm strength with a target date in mind. Now Heaney and every other major league starting pitcher must find a way to keep their arms in shape without overworking themselves — indefinitely.

He believes there’s “a fine balance” he can strike.

He believes the absence of baseball is a bigger issue.

“It’s the national pastime,” Heaney said, “and from an emotional standpoint, it’s been there for people and been a source of entertainment and distraction and all that stuff from all of the bigger-picture things that are going on. And I think that that’s something that guys really enjoy, being able to be that, having that source of pride in what you do and what it means to people. For that, it’s sad. And for the people that are gonna be out of work and might not have other options or other places to turn, that sucks.”

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