NEW YORK — Baltimore slugger Chris Davis was driving down Florida’s west coast on Interstate 75 from Sarasota to Fort Myers for an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins when he got the call.
No game tonight. No games for a while.
"Pretty shocked," Davis said, "just how quickly things have escalated."
Major League Baseball delayed the start of its season by at least two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak and suspended the rest of its spring training schedule.
Opening day had been scheduled for March 26. The decision announced by Commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday left open whether each team would still play 162 games.
"It’s unfortunate but I think it’s the proper measure we need to take now given the situation the country’s in and the world’s in," New York Yankees star Giancarlo Stanton said. "It’s important to know that some things are bigger than baseball, bigger than sports at the moment. Once we’re able to hopefully get a hold on some things and get some questions answered we can figure out when things can continue."
The announcement came while some spring training games in Florida were still in progress. MLB followed the NBA, NHL, MLS and college basketball tournaments in altering schedules because of the pandemic.
The minor league baseball season, which was to start April 9, also will be delayed along with qualifying in Arizona for this year’s Olympic baseball tournament and for next year’s World Baseball Classic.
"We’re ultimately all people. We all love the game of baseball, but this is a far bigger issue for all of us right now, and we’re trying to work our way through it together," Seattle Mariners owner John Stanton said at the team’s camp in Peoria, Arizona.
"I believe that this is going to be something that will have a lot more twists and turns to it. I don’t have a high degree of confidence that we will start on April 9," he said.
MLB had continued to play into Thursday, two weeks before the season had been set to start with a pair of simultaneous games: Detroit at Cleveland and World Series champion Washington at the New York Mets.
Texas had been looking forward to the opening of its retractable-roof ballpark, Globe Life Field, first with an exhibition against St. Louis on March 23 and then a formal opener against the Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels on March 31.
But baseball changed course after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a morning news conference he had strongly recommended to local authorities and organizers that they limit all mass gatherings.
"MLB and the clubs have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular season schedule," the commissioner’s office said in a statement. "MLB will announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time and will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible."
Players with big league contracts likely will be allowed to leave spring training and go home if they want to, but no decision on that was made public.
"There are so many questions that I have, and I know a bunch of guys have approached me with questions I just don’t have answers to," he added. "It doesn’t seem real."
Said Seattle pitcher Kendall Graveman: "This is a first for everyone. Man, it’s invisible, too. So we’re really trying to take precautions. But yeah, it’s crazy."
MLB had not had a mass postponement of openers since 1995, when the season was shortened from 162 games to 144 following a 7 1/2-month players’ strike that also wiped out the 1994 World Series. Opening day was pushed back from April 2 to April 26 and player salaries were reduced by 11.1% because the games were lost due to a strike.
After a 32-day spring training lockout in 1990 caused opening day to be delayed a week until April 9, the season was extended by three days to allow each team a full 162-game schedule.
Baseball’s first strike lasted from April 1-13 in 1972, and the season started April 15. Teams played 153-156 games.
This year marked the earliest opening day other than for international games. As it stood, Game 7 of the World Series would’ve been Oct. 28.
If regular-season games are lost this year, MLB could attempt to reduce salaries by citing paragraph 11 of the Uniform Player’s Contract, which covers national emergencies. The announcement Thursday said the decision was made "due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic."
"This contract is subject to federal or state legislation, regulations, executive or other official orders or other governmental action, now or hereafter in effect respecting military, naval, air or other governmental service, which may directly or indirectly affect the player, club or the league," every Uniform Player’s Contract states.
The provision also states the agreement is "subject also to the right of the commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played."
Players usually get paid only during the regular season, on the 15th and final day of each month, and the delay could become especially burdensome for minor leaguers who live paycheque to paycheque. Many rely on being fed at team complexes, and while some having on-complex housing, others are stretching to pay for apartments in Florida or Arizona during spring training.
"Every decision we make will be done with as much empathy and thought as possible for everyone’s standing," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Everyone’s affected by this differently and we want to make sure everyone has what they need to continue to stay healthy."
Spring training games were suspended as of 4 p.m. EDT Thursday, and games in progress were allowed to finish. Minnesota notified fans by leaving copies of MLB’s press release on benches at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, where the game against the Orioles had been scheduled for 6:05 p.m.
"No, no signs, nothing," said Chuck Thompson of Ellsworth, Wisconsin, who was wearing a Twins cap and learned of the cancellation from a parking lot attendant.
"We were wondering why there was no line," added wife Sharon.
At the Chicago Cubs complex in Mesa, Arizona, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Kipnis expressed disbelief to visiting Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce, and left-hander Jon Lester threw long toss on the backfields as if it was a normal work day.
Over 100 fans stood outside the locked gates at Sloan Park, soaking in the rain that had postponed a scheduled Cubs game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as MLB’s decision.
"Maybe next year," one disappointed fan said.
"We’re Cubs fans," answered another. "We understand next year."
Sara Philpot, from near Dallas, had bought her son Jaxson tickets to Thursday’s Cubs-Dodgers game as a Christmas present.
"It’s an overreaction," she said. "It depends. I think if you’re if you’re elderly, yes, it’s warranted, but for the younger crowd it’s not anything really. But I get that it spreads really, really easily."