What I’m Hearing: Bob Nightengale reports on how the umpires are reacting to the shortened season
There were opt-outs, failed tests, missing delivery trucks, angry emails, cancelled workouts, terse statements, retirements, World Series ring deliveries, and two seasons worth of schedules released 72 hours apart.
“It seems like every day we’ve seen something we’ve never seen,’’ New York Mets pitcher Michael Wacha said Wednesday. “It’s definitely been a wild time.’’
It was one of the more unique weeks in Major League Baseball history, with scrimmages replacing normally scheduled regular-season games, pumped-in crowd noise replacing fans, catchers wearing masks inside of masks, and a temperature check to even be permitted into ballparks.
And, oh, by the way, the 2020 season starts in two weeks.
“At this point,’’ says Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, “it’s kind of a mad dash.’’
It’s enough to make every manager’s head spin.
Forget about looking at the daily trainer’s report to see how everyone’s feeling.
You’ve got to examine the medical list to see who’s even available to work out, checking to see the latest positive coronavirus test results and wondering how long it will take before they can be back.
The players meanwhile are being asked to play a game in the middle of a pandemic, watching teammates get sick, others opting out, and wrestling with the daily question of whether it’s safe to play with the rising number of positive tests throughout the country.
“There’s so many ways that our mood is influenced before we ever get here,’’ Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said, “and then you have to come here and be a Major League Baseball player and try to park it all. …You’re constantly trying to monitor everybody every day because the news is very impactful and it’s confusing. It’s all about feel right now.’’
Safety was the theme throughout baseball the first week of Spring Training 2.0, with players like Angels star Mike Trout wearing a mask at all times on the field during workouts, while Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos revealed that he will wear a face mask under his own catcher’s mask, with hopes that others follow.
“I hope the umpires wear something when they’re behind me,’’ Chirinos said, “and I hope he’s not getting too close. You know, sometimes you see umpires putting their hand on top of my back or my helmet. They need to figure out a way also, to not be so close.
“I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but right now, everybody’s adjusting and trying to find a way to get this season going.”
The biggest concern the first week was the delayed results in testing, with five teams cancelling workouts, and players like Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros staying home until he was assured he tested negative.
“If they don’t get the testing figure out,’’ said Oakland Athletics reliever Jake Diekman, who has the autoimmune condition ulcerative colitis, “then this whole thing will get shut down. During the season there’s no way we can go 72 hours or longer without knowing our result. There’s just no way. …
“There’s a little part in everyone’s mind that thinks this whole thing is going to get shut down. I think everyone has a little bit of fear.’’
The delayed test results had Nationals GM Mike Rizzo fuming, Trout and All-Star catcher Buster Posey wondering aloud whether they can continue, and players questioning whether this can possibly work.
Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon, who signed a seven-year, $245 million free-agent contract during the winter, said he was never fearful of returning to work. There are no health risks in his family and he feels safe with baseball’s protocols, but understands why not all of his peers feel the same.
“At this time, we have to be selfless because we don’t know what everybody’s situation is,’’ Rendon said Thursday. “We have to be aware of one another. We can’t be selfish. Go out to dinner. Go out after the game to have a drink and wind back down. … It’s a unique situation. We have to realize that we’re playing for each other, not necessarily ourselves. Now, more than ever, because of what’s going on.’’
Forget about the challenge of shutting down your social life, talking to opposing players on the field, or even taking the hotel elevator to your room.
How about just giving up the simple act of throwing the ball around the infield during a baseball game?
During a Yankees intrasquad game, ace Gerrit Cole struck out Mike Tauchman, and catcher Gary Sanchez did what he has always done on the baseball field. He fired the ball to third base, it went around the infield, and oops.
“Any baseball that is put in play and touched by multiple players shall be removed and exchanged for a new baseball. After an out, players are strongly discouraged from throwing the ball around the infield.’’
“I know at least it’s discouraged throwing it around,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the incident. “But I don’t know if it’s by rule you can’t throw it around and if that has to go out. I’ve got to get to the bottom of that.”
But there is no vagueness in the operations manual about spitting. Strictly prohibited.
“Not being able to spit,’’ Mets shortstop Ahmed Rosario said, “is something that I’d been used to for my whole career, and now that we can’t do it, it’s uncomfortable.’’
Rendon says he’s still trying to figure out some of the protocols, wondering why you can’t chew tobacco or sunflower seeds, but gum is permitted.
“I was very confused with that,’’ Rendon said. “If you eliminate one, you should eliminate all of them.’’
Yes, and speaking of confusion, Rendon says, he doesn’t understand the concept of piping in artificial crowd, calling it “stupid’’ since there are only cardboard cut-outs, and no real fans.
“It’s like you’re looking at a pizza,’’ he said, “and smelling a hamburger.’’
Teams have been experimenting all week on handling the noise. Teams have blared music. Others are using artificial crowd noise. Some have worked out in silence.
And if there’s no noise, players and coaches must be aware that that every word uttered could be easily picked up by TV microphones.
“I know it’s going to be different, a lot different,’’ says Nationals manager Davey Martinez. “I can’t say things I normally say … I’ll probably be wearing my mask, so you can’t read my lips.’’
Yet, whether it’s words, screams or lip-reading, the players refrain the entire week remains the same:
Keep us safe, or we’re not playing.
“All the players are kind of saying the same thing,’’ Astros outfielder Michael Brantley said. “We need clarity. And once we get clarity, I think we’ll feel better about this.’’
One shaky week down.
Two to go.
Can MLB pull it off?
Yes, Brantley believes, as long as the test results come back quickly and the players maintain social distancing.
“But at the same time, some of the same stuff we’re dealing with right now,’’ Brantley says, “players missing practices, coaches missing practices, having whole days cancelled, it’s tough.
“We got to make sure we iron out all these kinks fast because the season is coming quick.”