The club, such as it is, meets on the streets of Tampa, along the trails of Seattle, across the rutted stones of Boston, with traffic in Phoenix, on rainy mornings in Dallas, into the headwinds outside Lincoln and on sidewalks and park paths and muddy trails and grass fields in a dozen or more other towns.
Some 65 strong, a loose collection of otherwise quarantined baseball executives, middle managers, staffers, analysts and coaches from across the league is what has come of The Social Distance Running Challenge, which four weeks ago had a roll of two, up from one a couple days before that.
Cole Figueroa, the former big-league infielder turned assistant director of hitting development for the Tampa Bay Rays, had an idea he thought might release him from his computer screen, from the blip-blips of his phone, from his four walls. He could run. He could get outside, feel the wind on his face, the sun on his back, clear his head and believe in a life beyond the news, dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. Out there. Somewhere. Everywhere. It sounded to him magical.
There was a single impediment.
“I hate running,” he said.
He’d learned of a Nike app that would log his miles (a staggering assumption initially, he learned), set goals, register his pace, and all the other stuff he assumed runners liked to do.
He signed up. He looked at his name, sitting there all by itself, and considered what he’d committed to. He thumbed at his phone.
Vinesh Kanthan’s phone blip-blipped. (Or something.)
Kanthan is the manager of sports science for the Texas Rangers. He’d previously been an intern with the Rays, where he’d met Figueroa. He ran with some regularity, though he was at that moment enduring his annual end-of-spring-training candy and fried food regrets. Kanthan was vulnerable. He’d remained friends with Figueroa, whose charismatic and buoyant personality is impossible to resist.
“Hey, I’m thinking of starting this run club,” read the text from Figueroa.
OK, Kanthan thought.
“Who’s in it?”
“You and me.”
Three days later, the membership held steady.
Figueroa and Kanthan decided it was time to invite others. They put out invitations by text, by email, on social media.
Will Rhymes’ phone lit up. Rhymes is the director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’d been a teammate of Figueroa’s with the Rays. He is not a runner, or wasn’t to that point. He was in.
“Honestly,” he said, “I did it because I didn’t want him to have nobody participate. I didn’t want it to flop on him.”
The dreaded pity entry.
Carson Vitale, field coordinator for the Seattle Mariners, knew Figueroa when both worked for the Dodgers. He signed up. Vitale is a former catcher.
A club that includes athletes is going to become competitive, even if it is just running. Because it would be just running, all former catchers would be welcome. As a rule, about the only people slower than current catchers are former catchers.
Through invitation or word of mouth, the roster grew over the next week. Figueroa or Kanthan knew some of the names, didn’t know others, and were coming to understand the lives they were leading under the pandemic — conference calls, video calls, reaching out to colleagues and friends, trying to be useful to their organizations, monitoring themselves for signs they may be becoming Jack Torrance — were the same everywhere.
Heads of baseball operations — Chaim Bloom, James Click, Jon Daniels — were in. Executive staffers — Mike Daly (Rangers), Peter Bendix (Rays), Shiraz Rehman (Rangers), Pete DeYoung (Padres), Brandon Gomes (Dodgers) — signed up. Former players — Sam Fuld, Jeremy Sowers — joined. Coaches, too, and scouts and trainers and television personalities. Within days at least 10 teams were represented.
The first challenge was to complete 25 miles in four weeks. A leaderboard reflected who reached 25 miles the quickest. What grew was a community within the baseball community. What arrived was a hard goal when plans beyond today blurred in safe-at-home measures and anxieties. They ran through lethargy, through rain, through blisters, through body parts that were sore and yet could not be named. Rivalries formed. And laughter. So much laughter.
“I know Vinesh is probably killing his body to be in the top five,” Figueroa said.
Which is not true unless you count the night he filled a bathtub with hot water, slipped in and vowed never to get out.
“I hadn’t taken a bath since I was 5 years old,” Vinesh confirmed.
He finished fourth in the challenge.
Rhymes ran six miles the first day.
“I was way too hot out of the chute,” he said. “It had been a stressful few days prior.”
He soon adopted a fresh strategy.
“I was trying to tank and get the first pick,” he said.
He finished 29th.
“I screwed up and got the second pick,” he said.
Jon Daniels, the Rangers’ president of baseball operations, strove for the top 20. He finished 13th.
Chaim Bloom, chief baseball officer for the Red Sox, was 35th. He does not like to run, which is apparent. (He also had a late start.)
Cole Figueroa finished 15th.
Carson Vitale banged out 25 miles in about 2 ½ days, which made 206 miles over 20 days, logged on the streets of Ashland, Nebraska.
“I have a slight addiction,” he said of his running.
It was born in earnest when he was managing in the Dominican Summer League for the Angels five years ago. With nothing to do in the afternoons near San Pedro de Macorís, he’d set out on the roads, lost in the Spanish lessons playing on his headphones.
Now he listens to books — lately, “Chop Wood Carry Water” (about an aspiring Samurai) and a biography of Marcus Aurelius — and sets his eyes on the horizon and sometimes thinks about what today has brought. He is 31. He spent his career in the minor leagues — as a player, manager and coach — until this season, whenever this season comes.
“We all set goals for ourselves,” he said. “Getting to the big leagues was one of them. That’s been pushed back and it’s only put things into perspective even more. … My teammates, the minor leaguers, the guys in player development, we’re all feeling the same thing. It’s all unique to the individual. So what I’m feeling is no more or less than what anyone is feeling. My disappointment is not more or less weighted than yours. Our journeys are unique.
“There’s so much unknown. For the moment, there isn’t anything to do. Literally. So what is our normal then? How we come back from this — as a coach or a player or an executive — is how it will be measured. There’s experiences around us every day. So be a better husband. A better father. Have more empathy for others. As a coach, all of these skills will be transferable.”
For today, and probably tomorrow, that means more of the same. Some of that will be welcome. Some will weigh a little more. And for 20 minutes or an hour or two, every day or so, there may be comfort in knowing someone else is out there wheezing against the hill at the end, finding a few more yards that weren’t there the day before.
“It’s been so fun to connect and have this with the other people,” Figueroa said. “The engagement of it is the best part. Even if it’s shallow to some extent, it’s nice to feel you’re not going through this alone.”
And then it’s the texts and emails and Slack messages that are encouraging or cutting or jubilant or despairing, whatever plays when the rules have all changed.
“The best parts of baseball tend to come out in moments like these,” Rhymes said. “The baseball community comes together. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked best about it. Teams come together. They take care of people. Something happens and it’s always the same response.”
This time, for a few dozen folks who have the game in common, maybe it’s a hard run, a slow walk, something in between. Mostly, it’s the notion of … something.
“This isn’t a fun time for anybody,” Kanthan said. “So Cole deserves most of the credit for this. He cares about people.”
All of which leaves one goal.
Chase the catcher.
“I don’t know what the next challenge is yet,” Carson Vitale said. “I’m waiting for Cole to tell me and then I’ll beat them at that.”
It’s 36 miles this month. Go.
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