Baseball scrambles back into action amid lingering concerns
Ron Gardenhire and Dusty Baker are a little uneasy. Jim Crane hopes his Houston Astros can play in front of fans at some point.
As baseball scrambles to start an abbreviated season, the prevailing mood is one of nervous excitement.
“Is it a risk? Absolutely,” said Gardenhire, the 62-year-old manager of the Detroit Tigers. "There’s risk involved in this. We all know it, and we’re willing to go try to do this thing. I would never want to jump ship with my team, but we’re going to hopefully do everything right as far as protocol goes, and take care of each other and keep everybody healthy as best we possibly can.”
Major League Baseball set a 60-game schedule Tuesday night, and now the sport will try its best to complete a season and crown a champion amid a coronavirus pandemic that still looms over much of American life. Players report to camps July 1 — hard to call it “spring training” at this time of year — and the regular season is supposed to start about three weeks later.
It already feels like a whirlwind.
“We knew this was a possibility so I think everybody is kind of ahead of where they normally would be for traditional spring training,” Minnesota Twins reliever Taylor Rogers said. “I don’t know if I can speak for everybody because it’s easier for the relievers. I don’t know how the starters are going to get ready or stretched out. And then the hitters, that’s a whole different ballgame. I’m sure it’s going to be difficult for them early. They haven’t seen live pitching in three months now.”
Aside from the accelerated timeline, other logistical issues could arise as teams figure out how to turn their home ballparks into training camps following an uptick in infections in Florida and Arizona. The Tigers announced Wednesday they would use Comerica Park in Detroit, which obviously has less field space than the team's sprawling spring training complex in Florida. General manager Al Avila said players would have their time on the field staggered.
The Texas Rangers, who still haven’t played a game in their new retractable roof stadium, plan to use the home, visitor and auxiliary clubhouses to spread out players and staff. The team also has access to its former stadium across the street, even though the field was converted for the XFL and soccer.
Dick Williams, president of baseball operations for the Cincinnati Reds, said MLB is going to charter jets to bring in players from the Dominican Republic, and that teams are allowed to play a small number of exhibition games in July — although he doubts anybody will.
All of these issues could become moot if there's a major outbreak of the virus within baseball. Avila said one player and one staff member for the Tigers tested positive, and there have been examples from other teams as well. Gardenhire, who has dealt with cancer and diabetes, has concerns about the virus, and Baker, the manager of the Astros, is 71, putting him in a category of older people who could be particularly vulnerable.
“I’m a bit nervous," he said. "I’ve seen the reports in Houston how COVID’s going up so I’m going to have to really be careful. I’ve got about 100 different masks. I’ve got some gloves. I’ve read all the reports on what to do and how to stay good. So in my mind and in my heart I’m in good shape and I’m ready to go.”
Even at age 29, Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd considers himself at risk because he's had asthma his whole life — but he thinks he and his teammates will act responsibly. It will be unusual following new safety protocols that are at times incompatible with human nature on the baseball field.
“It’s going to be different not giving guys big hugs and high fives and stuff," Boyd said. "Emotion’s going to take over. The second that we hit a walk-off home run, everybody’s probably going to jump out and be like, ‘Oh yeah, wait. Hold up.’”
There's been no decision on whether fans can attend games at some point. Commissioner Rob Manfred said the first order of business is getting comfortable with games in empty stadiums. Crane, who owns the Astros, is hoping that could change eventually.
“We’ve still got to go through the player protocol. They’re very focused on that and the staff that’s going to be associated with the games once we fire up,” Crane said. “I think the intent at some point is to get the fans in the ballpark.”