Plunge into the unknown: Baseball reflects on the day COVID-19 shut down spring training

I was in Arizona, along with half the baseball world, when sports shut down in March 2020.

Just a few days before, while sitting on the tarmac in New York waiting to take off, I had texted my editor to suggest that I ask teams about the coronavirus once I got to spring training. “I have a feeling this is the week it becomes a story,” I said from on board a flight that felt suspiciously sparse. Or maybe that’s how late-night flights to Phoenix always look mid-week. Were people more skittish than normal at the airport? Was I?

But when I got to the Cactus League, there was little to report on. I took a picture of pre-signed baseball cards that would ever so briefly replace interactions with fans, but the players barely knew what I was talking about. There had been a meeting to talk about safety, one said, but to be honest he hadn’t gone.

Internally, MLB was weighing whether the Mariners would have to move their opening series at home, but even Seattle players had little to say about the virus that had been detected in the Pacific Northwest. Of course by April, lockdowns would span the country and the opposite coast would be the hardest hit.

On March 11, I watched the chaos unfold after Rudy Gobert tested positive just ahead of a Utah Jazz game in Oklahoma City on TV from my hotel room. I sent a bunch of texts that went unanswered to people in baseball who didn’t know any more than I did, and then raced to Sloan Park, where the Chicago Cubs were finishing up a meaningless game. The postgame news conferences would be the first chance to force someone in baseball to talk about the looming health crisis that had hit the NBA first only by happenstance.

The first question to Yu Darvish, who had pitched that night for the Cubs, was about what he was working on in the game, how his stuff felt. Next, someone asked how it would feel to get the opening day start — “whenever opening day is,” the reporter acknowledged cryptically.

There was a question about pitch count before finally someone mentioned COVID-19. A basketball player had tested positive and the NBA season was already suspended: Was he concerned that someone in baseball might be next?

“At some point, someone will get coronavirus, I think. If somebody gets it, MLB will do the same thing the NBA did.”

Darvish was calm and clear. His jarring assertion was righter than anyone else had been to that point. But he was wrong about one thing: that it would take a positive test to shutter spring training.

The next day, it hailed in Arizona. There were no Cactus Leagues games. The Grapefruit League hosted a few final grasps at baseball ahead of the inevitable. But even as some of those were still underway word came from MLB: Spring training was suspended and the sport was plunged into abject uncertainty.

It’s a year later, spring training is back, although I am not there this time. From a distance, we’re talking about games again and the promise of a season to be played with fewer caveats and more reasonable stakes. But we’re not so far removed from that strange rupture last March that it isn’t worth reflecting on. So I asked some people around the game what they remember from those days when baseball first confronted the coronavirus.

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 file photo, a player wears a face mask as he walks to a drill during San Diego Padres spring training baseball practice in Peoria, Ariz. A study published on Thursday, March 4, 2021 in JAMA Cardiology, suggests that heart inflammation is uncommon in pro athletes who’ve had mild COVID-19 and most don’t need to be sidelined. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A player dons a mask during workouts at the 2021 version of spring training. Last year, baseball shut down on March 12, just a day after Rudy Gobert's positive test caused the NBA to suspend its season. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Chaim Bloom, Boston Red Sox chief baseball officer

I remember [March 11] more vividly than [March 12]. We were playing a night game in Port Charlotte. That day was a chance for me to see and say goodbye to a lot of people with the Rays that I had not been able to catch yet since I left. It was during that game when the news of the NBA shutdown happened, when flights were suspended from Europe, when a lot of things changed around us and I remember watching that game and thinking, ‘OK, this is probably going to be the last baseball game that I see for a long time.’ We were off the next day, so I had this feeling that night, that we weren't going to be playing baseball again for a while.

It seemed clear that it was going to be longer than the weekend that we were going to have to put things on pause for some significant period of time, I don't know that any of us could have imagined just how long that would be. But it was pretty clear that it was going to take some time for us to get our arms around this thing, even in the best case.

Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals manager

During our game, there were rumors saying that we were gonna get shut down. So we were playing, you know, and guys were coming out and saying, ‘Hey I think we're gonna pull the plug.’ And sure enough, after the game, I got a text message saying they're gonna halt spring training for the time being, and see what happens. We kept a lot of our guys, they stayed in Florida because we didn't know how long it was going to be and then finally they said, ‘Hey we're gonna be shut down for a while.’ So everybody just went on their way and tried the best we can, you know, keep guys in physical shape. But it was tough. It was tough for everybody.

Mike Shildt, St. Louis Cardinals manager

I didn't realize how soon it was gonna happen because it really wasn't, candidly, the least on my radar. I knew peripherally some things were happening with it but I'm not a big, especially during the season, external awareness kind of guy. I stay pretty focused on what we're doing and how we're doing and what we need to be doing. So the coronavirus, for me personally, I was aware of it but I didn't understand the magnitude of it, and how quickly it was impacting our societies. But the night before we shut down, the NBA shut down. And I remember going to bed, and looking at some news and looking at it going, ‘Oh wow.’ That kind of caught me off guard, and my very next thought was, we got to be pretty close behind that.

There was some clarity that the likeliness, you know, virtually positive that we were going to shut spring training down after that game, and it came down right before we actually went out into the field so the timing was interesting. I know people were aware that that was probably it — like most things, they get out publicly. Sometimes ahead of what we even know. So we go out and the crowd’s going, ‘Oh this is it,’ and the crowd was making statements and conversation, it was just an interesting vibe. I’ve never played a game like that.

Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers manager

I think what we all remember is just there was just a lot of uncertainty, I don't think anybody thought we were going to be walking away for the amount of time that we walked away. ...The NBA canceling things, I think, told us that we were going to take some kind of break, I think we all knew that, but we had no idea the length of it or what it meant or that we'd all be going home, spending a lot of time with their families. I don't think we expected that.

The other, maybe a little strange thing that everybody else that was here remembers is there was an incredible storm that day. It was a little eerie. There was hail outside the ballpark — actually I took a picture that I really liked of a rainbow and hail on the field and the sky was black in the background. I remember walking out of the park when that storm had just finished and it was a little bit of an eerie feeling because it didn't look like a Phoenix that I had ever seen before.

We were watching the games [in Florida], kind of like what's going on, not understanding why they were playing.

David Ross, Chicago Cubs manager

I remember leading up to that I had a meeting up with Jed [Hoyer] and Theo [Epstein] up in their office, and them filling me in on just everything that was going on — I was more locked into baseball mode — and kind of filling me in on how serious this was and real.

And then it was a day or two later, maybe the next day, where things started to shut down and we got the call. I remember standing in the hallway down here by the weight room, discussing how things are going to be shut down and how we were going to proceed. Did we need to wait around? Theo was very clear and took the reins there like, nope we’re sending everybody home because this is going to be a while, and I think that wasn't on my radar quite yet.

I had my kids in and before I left we got a little time with them, we went over to Sedona on a little hiking trip and then it was how I was gonna get home because airports are starting to shut down.

Derek Shelton, Pittsburgh Pirates manager

It was a little surreal, we went out talking about it. And again, you know, not ever having been through a global pandemic or not knowing what was gonna happen, I don't think any of us realized the severity of it. … I remember candidly talking to one of the umpires that day and him telling me like, ‘Hey they're telling us we're going home.’ And that was during the game and that really kind of stuck with me like whoa, we're dealing with something. If they're going to send all the umpires home, then we're in a serious situation here.

James Click, Houston Astros GM

I remember very distinctly standing in the clubhouse with everybody explaining that we were going to shut down for the weekend. And we had our team doctor, Dr. [David] Lintner, there explaining what we knew about the virus at the time and he was saying, you know, playing cards was a very bad activity because the droplets get on the cards and then you deal the cards around, you're basically just passing it all over the place. He was explaining what we knew about the virus then. And I explained to the guys, ‘Hey listen, we're gonna we're gonna take a break for a few days.’ We talked about flattening the curve.

And then if memory serves, because we were gonna be shut down for a few days, my family was still in St. Pete, so I got in the car to go home to see them because we're going to be shut down. And while I was on that drive, I got the call from the commissioner's office that we weren't just shutting down for three days, we were shutting down indefinitely. Then had to, of course, scramble to let everybody know that that's what was going on but it was moving very, very quickly at that point.

All you think about is, OK, what do we need to do? How do we get this information guys? How do we make sure that everybody gets home safely? What are the plans we need to put in place? You don't have time to really appreciate the gravity of it at the moment.

I was a history major in college, it's one of the things I think about — that when you are living through something, keeping track of how you feel about it and what you think about it at the time is really critical because I look back on those days and weeks right now, and you can't help but be colored by everything that's happened since. But I'm trying to remember when I was standing in front of the clubhouse, when Dusty [Baker] and I were telling the guys were going to shut down for a few days, when Dr. Lintner was explaining what this thing was, and when everybody's saying OK well, we'll just delay for a couple weeks and we'll still get 162 games in and we might just have to do some doubleheaders.

We couldn't know what the next year was going to look like and it is difficult to think back to that. But you know it's one of those tricks of studying history is that you know you always think about people in key moments in history, and the decisions that they made, but you can't help but look at them through what actually happened afterwards and color your assessment of their decisions through what ended up happening. And so, you know, we’ve got to make sure that we try not to do that.

Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta Braves GM

Every day was new information, and it felt like, as we were learning more, and we were finding out more, the anxiety and the fear of the unknown was getting worse. To the point where the first day or two you're learning and then by the end of it, when we shut camps down and a lot of people were getting in their cars and driving back to Atlanta, you've got gloves packed in your car and hand sanitizer and masks.

I think getting up that morning I didn't think that was our last game, but I don't know if it was late in the afternoon or in the middle of that game, but at some point it just felt like we likely weren't gonna be playing again, just because things were accelerating so fast. It seems like the minute that NBA game was canceled, the switch flipped.

Chris Young, now Texas Rangers GM, then a Senior Vice President at MLB

I was back home in Dallas. I had just returned from Phoenix. I was with the commissioner in Phoenix right before that ... and I remember talking to multiple general managers saying, ‘My players are really concerned. They follow the NBA, some of them don't want to play today. What should the messaging be?’

And then there was just this dialogue with the commissioner and Dan [Halem] and our PR department and everyone else involved, trying to figure out what course of action we were going to take and then what advice we were giving the clubs, because they were in limbo as well.

Nobody understood anything about what was going on. We just knew there's this virus out there that was highly contagious.

Rick Hahn, Chicago White Sox GM

You know, I’m sitting in my office here in Glendale, and there’s a bunch of my clothes that I actually left behind that I hadn’t seen in a year that I forgot I had. My quarter zip game has expanded. They’re back. They’re back in the rotation.

But no, I remember sitting in the office doing a conference call — pre-Zoom — right when things pushed pause. And understandably, everyone's sort of asking how long do we expect this pause to be? And initially, I remember we thought it was gonna be a few days, or we're gonna reevaluate on Monday or something like that after three or four days. That obviously was, in the end, further from the truth of what we were going to be able to do. But none of us really knew — and that’s not a club thing or a league thing, that’s a world thing. None of us really understood precisely what we were dealing with.

Andrew Friedman, Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations

I remember we played a night game the night before when Rudy Gobert, that situation, the NBA game getting canceled. We met after our game and said ‘the other shoe is about to drop, things are about to change really rapidly.’ Even as it was unfolding, everything that we were embarking on was new and just trying to wrap our arms around it, while communicating to everyone, I can't say enough about how our staff handled all of the unknowns.

After the game, Dave Roberts, a couple of the front office people, a couple of coaches, we just all sat around, talking about how things were gonna change in the next day or two on our end, and what that meant, the time period associated with it, and all the unknown. And then, the next day, I think they played spring training games in Florida, which we did not anticipate. And then our game got canceled that day. And then we started meeting with our players, separating it out into smaller groups and met outside, and just updated and shared everything we knew — just unwinding our spring training and working through all of the logistics required real time. And so we met as a staff and people who didn’t work within driving distance, we told them to fly and get home. Other staff kind of remained for a day or two. And it's funny, in some ways, it feels like six months ago, and in some ways it feels like four years ago.

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