TORONTO — When Danny Jansen wakes up in the morning, he opens the blinds of the Rogers Centre hotel room he’s occupying and lets in the warm, artificial glow of stadium lights. He orders a coffee to his room, because he’s not allowed to go get it himself. He kicks back with his cup and looks out over the outfield turf, getting ready to watch the morning group of his Toronto Blue Jays teammates take batting practice.
Strange times for Jansen, for the Blue Jays, for all of us. But this is what life’s like at Blue Jays training camp, where all food’s delivered, all workouts are staggered and exiting the stadium’s footprint is strictly forbidden. Jansen will spend his next two weeks sleeping in that outfield hotel room, and possibly another couple months after that if the Blue Jays receive governmental clearance to play their regular season games in Toronto.
If they don’t, he’ll have to figure out accommodations wherever the team ends up hosting its home schedule. But that possibility won’t come around for another 15 days or so, which might as well be 15 months in 2020. For now, Jansen will try to make the most of his 24 daily hours at Rogers Centre, follow all the rules, and get ready for the strangest season he’ll ever play.
“It’s definitely different,” the Blue Jays catcher said Wednesday on a media Zoom call. “Everybody’s obviously taking the protocols extremely seriously. We’re staying in our rooms, we’re working out when the schedule tells us to. But it’s definitely nice to be back here.”
Nice to not be in Florida, certainly, where recent daily COVID-19 case numbers have rivalled those of the entire European continent. Being in Toronto ought to help the Blue Jays minimize the possibility of the virus infiltrating their bubble, although there’s still the matter of a dozen players who were left behind in Dunedin out of caution after another positive test cropped up during Toronto’s intake process.
That scare underscored the importance of MLB’s health and safety guidelines, which it is the responsibility of not only players, but franchises and the league itself, to unconditionally follow. Which is what made MLB’s botched testing roll-out so alarming. Testing must be pervasive and rapid. Personal protective equipment must be provided and utilized.
And every individual inside a team’s bubble must take it upon themselves not to enter situations in which they could contract the virus. Jansen says Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette has been a particularly strong voice in that regard, getting on his teammates via text message during the shutdown about the importance of being safe and staying healthy.
“He’s opinionated; he has a voice. He’s a guy that’s going to be a leader and he’s really showing it,” Jansen said. “With the virus and the precautions and all that stuff — everybody’s got to take it very seriously. That’s what we’ve done so far and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
The virus has already put the Blue Jays at a disadvantage early in camp, as there’s no telling when the dozen players stuck in Florida will be able to fly north and join the 46 who have been working out at Rogers Centre. But Jansen can only worry about what’s — and who’s — in front of him. And on Wednesday that meant being behind the plate for six innings of live batting practice, catching bullpens on the side, and trying to find some time to work on a revamped swing.
“I think the biggest challenge is you don’t get to go into games and make your mistakes and learn from it there,” he said. “Now, we’re doing live BPs and a lot of that stuff and it’s kind of crammed. But you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. We’ve got two-and-a-half weeks. You have to communicate extra. Every single live BP or sim game you’re going to have to take something out of it.”
There aren’t many players for whom MLB’s March shutdown came at a worse time than Jansen, who went 9-for-17 with four homers and three walks over his first 20 spring training plate appearances. Spring stats are what they are, but Jansen was undeniably seeing the ball well, striking out only once over that span.
In an effort to keep that momentum going, Jansen went out and bought a net he set up in the garage of the Florida home he spent the shutdown living in so he could continue to take swings off a tee while quarantined.
“I didn’t want to lose that — I had a lot of traction going into the season,” Jansen said. “I had this new routine. And I stuck with it pretty much the whole quarantine, really. I stayed in the best shape I could and I think everybody did what they could at the time. So now, transitioning here and revving up quick, I feel good.”
Jansen hasn’t always hit off a tee like he did during the shutdown, but began this past off-season at the urging of Ryan Borucki’s father, Ray, who was once a minor-league infielder with the Philadelphia Phillies.
All that tee work — Jansen will sometimes hit weighted balls off of it to assess his bat path — helped the Blue Jays catcher pinpoint some flaws in his swing that needed ironing out. He compares how he felt at the plate this spring to how he felt right before the 2019 all-star break when he went 17-for-44 with six home runs and zero strikeouts over a 12-game stretch.
“That was a time when I figured out something in my swing as well and I stuck with it,” he said. “That’s big for me — finding something and cementing it into a routine. And now that I actually have one, it doesn’t matter if I have a bad game or a good game — I’m going to do the same thing every day.”
Continuing all that swing work throughout the season will challenge Jansen’s time-management, as he simultaneously juggles the handling of an entire pitching staff, game-planning how to attack opposition hitters, and maintaining his overall conditioning. But that’s the task of an MLB starting catcher. It’s how it’ll always be. This season Jansen will just have to work in smaller groups, at greater distances, and with fresher baseballs as soon as too many people have touched one.
So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that he’s stuck at Rogers Centre for some time. There’s plenty to keep him busy. Thursday, that will include Toronto’s first intrasquad game, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. in order to simulate the feeling of a regular season contest. Jansen will be in a lineup opposite Matt Shoemaker, the veteran right-hander he’ll spend the next couple months catching.
Will that be a little weird? A little awkward? Maybe a little fun?
“I told him he better get his rest because I’m coming for him tomorrow,” Jansen said. “I think it’s more fun than awkward. You step in the box, you’re in the zone. And same thing with the guy on the mound. Of course, you give a tip of the cap, maybe a smile before that. But we’re competitors so even though Shoe’s my guy and he’s my pitcher, you still have to crush him.”