DUNEDIN, Fla. – A few minutes after 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Jordan Romano delivered a first-pitch fastball to catcher Riley Adams. In many ways, it was an ordinary scene: a pitcher getting his pre-season work on a sunny afternoon in Florida.
But considering the context of the developing COVID-19 outbreak, this game was anything but typical. While Romano worked on the mound, MLB officials were finalizing plans to suspend spring training and delay the start of the regular season by at least two weeks. By the seventh inning stretch, word had spread: there wouldn’t be another first pitch for a while.
The changes of the last 48 hours leave Blue Jays players and staff in limbo, wondering about everything from training plans and salaries to families and safety measures. For now, there are more questions than answers.
Even before MLB’s announcement, the impact of COVID-19 could already be felt at Toronto Blue Jays camp. Players had been instructed to limit unnecessary high-fives, handshakes and autograph signings. While pro scouts and minor-league players began the day conducting business as usual, those plans shifted rapidly. By the evening, there was nowhere to send pro scouts and the minor-league season had been suspended, too.
Meanwhile, major-league players contemplated the possibility of changes to the schedule from different viewpoints. Matt Shoemaker, the Blue Jays’ player representative, had followed along with interest as other sports cancelled or postponed games, but he would personally have preferred for major-league teams to play on.
“Obviously, health and being safe when it comes to people and people being around each other is very important. I completely agree with that,” Shoemaker said Thursday morning. “As baseball players, one, it’s competition. We love this game. We want to play. We want to get the season rolling here in a week or two. We want to finish spring. We want to get everything going and have a normal, fun competition-based season.”
While acknowledging that he’s not a doctor, Shoemaker said he would strongly prefer not to cancel games. The possibility of playing in an empty stadium was no more appealing to the right-hander, who has been staying in touch with the MLBPA and Blue Jays players in his capacity as player rep.
“That would be awful,” Shoemaker said. “We should be playing with fans. If the fans want to come, they can come, in my opinion. Obviously, if they’re going to try to shut down the season and the only option is to play games in an empty stadium, I would want to play, especially if that’s our only option. Without question. But with that being said, I think we should still be playing games with our fans.”
Acting on the recommendation of health officials, the NBA, NHL and MLS have all suspended play due to COVID-19, which was recently categorized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. While players themselves are less likely than most to become seriously ill due to the virus, full stadiums could allow for easy transmission among fans, many of whom are elderly.
From a public health standpoint, the spread of COVID-19 could create overcrowding in hospitals and prevent those in need from getting necessary care. Under those circumstances, the death count could rise worldwide. With that in mind, the virus poses a real threat even if its symptoms are similar to the flu.
“First and foremost, it’s just keeping people safe,” Romano said. “It wouldn’t affect guys like me that much, if I get it it’s not that big of a deal, but just thinking my grandparents were down here a week ago and they’re still in Florida, so it’s just thinking of the older population. It’s definitely the right thing to do.”
While the Blue Jays have yet to announce their plans for the coming weeks, they’re expected to keep their Dunedin, Fla., spring facility open for players. Once MLB has settled on a new schedule, all players will presumably regroup to tune up for the season, potentially in an abbreviated fashion.
In the meantime, a spring unlike any other has come to an abrupt stop. For the first time since the 1995 player strike, an MLB season may consist of fewer than 162 games. That means significant adjustments for players, both personally and professionally.
“It’s scary,” added catcher Danny Jansen. “It’s been weird. You have to take precaution, extra precaution. We can’t control it, it’s out of our hands, but it’s definitely a weird, weird thing going on.”
After the final pitch was thrown, the grounds crew at TD Ballpark cleaned up – business as usual for one last day. But when baseball returns, and under what circumstances, nobody knows for sure.