At 10:30 a.m. last Wednesday, as he sat in a hotel room a short walk from Oracle Park, Tyler Heineman pulled out his phone and found a GIF of Stewie from "Family Guy." He sent it out to Giants fans with a short message on Twitter.
The catcher, signed as a minor league free agent over the offseason, wasn't kidding. Over the course of the afternoon, Heineman answered dozens of questions from Giants fans.
Heineman told one fan his best memory on a field was hitting his first big league homer. He clarified that he eats mac-and-cheese with a fork, not a spoon. He said his favorite player growing up was David Eckstein, agreed to go on a random podcast and noted that Jacob deGrom is the toughest pitcher he has faced. He also said he believes in soulmates.
This lasted deep into the afternoon. Welcome to life in the MLB's 2020 bubble.
The season is not technically being played in a "bubble" in Arizona, as was once proposed, but for the Giants who have descended upon Oracle Park for Spring Training 2.0, it might as well be.
Heineman couldn't leave his hotel room because he was awaiting a coronavirus test result taken during intake screening for all players, coaches and staffers. He got the word that Thursday afternoon that it came back negative, but he still didn't leave his hotel room until Saturday, when he was due at the field for the first Giants workout. In the days since, Heineman has made the five-minute walk to the ballpark to hit, lift and catch bullpens -- and then come right back to his room.
"The most important thing for me is to be able to play," he said this week via text. "I have no reason to leave my room except to go to the field. If I'm able to go to the field every day, that is enough for me. I can hold off on doing something for a few months until baseball is over."
That last line is one the Giants would print on their jerseys if they could. Manager Gabe Kapler has stressed to players the importance of staying at home and not doing anything that puts them at risk. Buster Posey hammered that message home on a team-wide video call last Thursday. The team leader asked the players not to be selfish because you never know what someone's home situation is, a message that seems to have resonated, likely because of what Posey himself was dealing with.
On Friday, Posey announced that he will not play the 2020 season because his family is adopting twin girls who were born prematurely. That decision has put Heineman and Rob Brantly, previously vying for the backup job, in the spotlight. Heineman, a switch-hitter, is all of a sudden in position to start July 23 at Dodger Stadium against Clayton Kershaw.
The Giants are counting on Heineman far more than they were two days ago, and the 29-year-old is doing everything he can to stay available in what he deemed the biggest year of his career even before he knew about the catching situation. Heineman provided NBC Sports Bay Area a glimpse over the last week into what that entails, and the sacrifices players are making to ensure a 2020 season amid a pandemic.
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Like every ballplayer, from Mike Trout to A-ball outfielders, Heineman spent most of the last four months staying ready and following updates on Twitter. He had been working out in the Los Angeles area with his brother Scott, a Texas Rangers outfielder. They were together when word came on June 23 that the game was officially back.
"We had heard rumors about all this stuff and (commissioner Rob) Manfred mandating a season," Heineman said. "Once we saw that it was back, we didn't want to get too excited. We had heard so many things throughout the three months about baseball coming back, and then, okay, there's a labor dispute. And then baseball might come back but then something else is going on and has been leaked. I tried to stay as even-keeled as possible until I got official word."
That came from the Giants later in the week. In the meantime, Austin Slater, the team's MLBPA representative, sent out a group text informing players that July 1 would be the testing date, but that it could be earlier for pitchers and catchers.
While some players around the game posted images to Instagram of packed suitcases in previous weeks, Heineman didn't start that process until the official invite to Spring Training 2.0 came. He got ready to drive up the coast to San Francisco, but first he had a stop to make.
Heineman had seen his parents just twice during quarantine, and he stopped by after getting word that the game was resuming. His dad bought sandwiches and they sat a proper distance apart in their backyard for a couple of hours, saying their goodbyes. Aside from those rare visits with his parents, Heineman had worked out regularly with his brother and seen his sister a couple of times, but that was about all the outside contact he had.
Next, came the really hard part.
Heineman's wife, Liz, is a physical therapist in Los Angeles and is staying there to continue to work through the season. The couples' four-month-old dog, Butters, also is staying in Los Angeles. The Heinemans, who got married last year, don't know when they'll next see each other, but they tried to embrace the positives.
"We were able to spend three extra months together, we moved into our new place together," Heineman said. "When it was time to go, it was more of an excitement thing. She was excited that I was able to go to work again and she's looking forward to watching me do what I love. She's ready to have me back whenever that is. If it's after September, we're both still very lucky that we did get to spend three extra months together."
Those three months came after an intense spring in which Heineman and Brantly competed for a big league job. Heineman thought of that on the drive up, but also thought quite a bit about all the safety protocols that were looming. The new reality hit him hard when he checked into a hotel room near the ballpark.
"It started to get a little nerve-wracking," he said. "I'm walking over to the park to get tested and it's extremely nerve-wracking. They were really strict about enforcing rules."
Heineman had not been tested over the previous three months. He had no reason to ever feel that he should be. But when players arrived in San Francisco last week, they were given an exact time to get to the ballpark for the first of many tests. Heineman arrived at a gate on Third Street at 3:20 p.m. last Tuesday. There were three other people in his group and they spread out to four corners of the testing site. Everyone involved wore a mask, and the players were first given a blood test for antibodies.
Heineman's came back negative in 10 minutes. He then took a saliva test and was told the results would be back in one or two days. From there, it was right back to the hotel. As he gave a phone interview the next day, he was still awaiting his test result.
"You're a little freaked out because technically you don't know if you have the virus," he said last week. "You could be asymptomatic. What makes it a little easier is you know that every MLB team and player is doing this same intake testing. It's giving the game of baseball a chance to come back. It allows us to go into the clubhouse with a stress-free mindset, knowing you got tested and you'll get tested every other day or every day even. You don't have to be super worried."
As it turned out, Heineman had nothing to worry about. "A weight off my shoulders," he said of the initial negative result. By Saturday, he was catching bullpens at Oracle Park.
"It felt amazing," he said. "I thought I would be nervous about all the protocols, but just being able to play catch on a big league field made me not even care about the added stuff we have to do in order to play."
Heineman said it was weird not being able to give high-fives or fist bump a teammate, but it's something the Giants will get used to, along with all the testing. Many players were tested the first Saturday, Sunday and Monday, even as the Giants saw a delay lead to the cancelation of one workout. Thus far, team officials are happy with the way everything has gone -- the Giants have three confirmed positive tests in camp -- and the buy-in they're seeing from players.
There's a lot of talk of Netflix and video games -- Heineman brought his PlayStation 4. Players can be seen leaving the park every day with prepackaged meals, and they're becoming familiar with the best local options for delivery in the evening. It has been less than three weeks since the Giants were told they could return and just one week since they took the field for the first time, but so far, so good.
"I think we are all on the same page and understand that it's up to us to stay safe and follow these guidelines put in place by MLB," Heineman said. "Otherwise, there will be no baseball."
What Giants' first week back was like for Buster Posey's understudy originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area