Sterling Sharp made his way out to the field to stretch prior to the Miami Marlins’ doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something just beyond the team’s dugout.
Sitting in the front road down the third-base line was teammate Ryne Stanek, or at least a cardboard cutout of the relief pitcher’s head shot in the team’s home white jersey and black cap. Rookie Alex Vesia was a row behind and a seat to the right of Stanek. Shortstop Miguel Rojas and pitcher Caleb Smith were in Row 3 with two seats between them to ensure proper social distancing.
This went on for nine rows and spanned parks of two sections at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a visual reminder of the challenges the team endured over the past two weeks.
“Gang’s all here,” as the Marlins succinctly posted on their social media pages.
The Marlins have 17 players from their active roster and another who was on their taxi squad back in South Florida. That group is under quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 during an outbreak that ultimately impacted 20 members of the team’s nearly 60-person traveling party in Philadelphia.
While that group won’t be in the lineup or at the ballpark for the near future, they were still with the team in some fashion on Wednesday and will be for the foreseeable future as the Marlins continue their season in the northeast for one more week.
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“Just really cool knowing they’re out there,” Sharp said. “We talk to them, text with them in the group chat all day. They’re cheering us on, and we wish them well.”
The cutouts were the brainchild of daily calls among the Marlins’ communications staff and executed in-person at the ballpark Wednesday by social media coordinator Sarah Penalver and player relations/Spanish media liaison Luis Dorante.
The cutouts will return to Camden Yards for the series finale against the Orioles on Thursday as the Marlins (5-1) go for a four-game sweep and will be on display at both Citi Field and Sahlen Field in Buffalo for the Marlins’ series against the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays, respectively, to close out what ultimately turned into a three-week road trip to begin the season.
“They wanted to keep the boys’ spirit alive,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Once we give our lineup to MLB, we’re sending our lineup to our players. We want them to stay involved and know what’s going on. We’re trying to keep them in the mix.
“We wanted to honor our guys that are down.”
Penalver said the process of putting the cutout design together was simple once they decided to move forward with the plan. Dorante assembled headshots that they had taken earlier in the year. Penalver designed everything on Microsoft Word. The two got to the ballpark early Wednesday and were allowed to use the clubhouse printer to create everything on-site. The team’s new compliance officer helped ensure the cutouts were socially distanced in the stands.
“We worked pretty fast,” Penalver said.
The first reaction from some of the players was, simply, to laugh. Jorge Alfaro, nicknamed “El Oso” (Spanish for “The Bear”) reacted to his cutout with an emoji of a bear crying in laughter on his Instagram story.
“This is hilarious,” Vesia wrote on his Instagram story.
Their next immediate reaction, Penalver said, was appreciation.
“We’re thinking of them,” Penalver said, “and we want our fans to continue thinking of them. They’re still part of the team and we hope they come back soon.”
Dorante said the experience of quarantining together brought the players and the communications staff closer. The whole traveling party went through the same isolation period that the players had to endure. Daily COVID-19 testing. No leaving the hotel room. Trying to find any realm of clarity and maneuver their jobs while also trying to stay positive about the outcome despite half the team’s players contracting the virus and a few showing symptoms.
“We try to serve our players every day,” Dorante said. “During everything we went through and having this exhausting task ... I’m going to quote Freddie Mercury here: The show must go on.”
They leaned on first baseman Jesus Aguilar and catcher Francisco Cervelli, two of the team’s consistently upbeat player, to help keep team morale high and serve as motivators for the club.
“They want to show the rest of the group that when you get to the field, you have to enjoy the game,” Dorante said. “Don’t worry about anything. Don’t think about the past. It’s just baseball. Everyone has taken that feeling into the clubhouse, and they want to share that for the guys and our fans.”
The show resumed Tuesday after an eight-game layoff. The Marlins are undefeated since returning to the field and head into Thursday tied with the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins for MLB’s best record in terms of winning percentage.
“They’re obviously still with us,” third baseman Brian Anderson said. “They’re watching the games. We’re always thinking about them every single day. Those guys are going through something really tough right now. I’m just happy that we’ve been able to play good baseball and make them proud. A lot of the guys are main pieces of the club. We’re just hoping they can get healthy. Baseball can come after that and we can go out and get some wins.”