TORONTO – Before the Toronto Blue Jays gathered for their training camp reboot, the team connected via Zoom and manager Charlie Montoyo ran through a list of things his players should expect once they were all together.
Under the circumstances, he told them, their preparations would obviously be far different than usual, with workouts tailored more to individual needs in order to get everyone into the best baseball shape possible. Communication with the coaching staff would be essential in ensuring they get extra groundballs, more throws in the outfield, a few more rips in the cage – whatever they felt was necessary.
Montoyo also dropped some knowledge on them, too.
“There are going to be two types of teams,” he recalled telling the group. “There are going to be the teams that work together. They’re going to follow the guidelines. They’re going to work as a group. They’re going to stay healthy. And that’s going to help them win more games. And then there are going to be the teams that are going to complain about everything, lose focus, get sick, not be healthy, and they’re not going to do very well. It’s going to be a long 60 games.”
The Blue Jays, the only team of the 30 in the majors completing a mandatory quarantine in a hotel attached to their home field, are intent on becoming the former, rather than the latter, which is crucial given their situation.
Separated from family and friends, sequestered within the Rogers Centre and Toronto Marriott City Centre footprint, mandated to not leave their rooms – even for a coffee – unless they’re headed to work, the mind can easily veer into the negative.
Total commitment, a prerequisite to success in the best of times, must be a foundational pillar to thrive in this pandemic-altered reality, when the extraordinary challenges of trying to avoid COVID-19 will, at times, make even the looming 60-game sprint feel like a marathon.
The Blue Jays have already experienced some of the risks inherent to the times, after a handful of players and staff contracted the coronavirus in Dunedin, Fla., late last month, and with 12 of the 58 players in their player pool still at the facility there after another positive test at intake.
Those hits helped reinforce the need for strict adherence to the health and safety protocols in place, ones all the more critical given how the Canadian government provided an exemption allowing the Blue Jays to train in Toronto now, while it considers whether to allow 30 regular-season home games in the city, as well.
“I remember it, for sure, it’s exactly right,” catcher Danny Jansen said of Montoyo’s message. “This season, with everything that’s going on, you’ve got to stay healthy. I mean, it’s a shame if you do test positive, then you’ve got to sit out for two weeks, or more. So really, the teams that are taking the precautions extra seriously, which you hope is everybody, is at the advantage.”
Another advantage, in Jansen’s eyes, is being away from the rampant spread of COVID-19 happening in so many spots across the United States. With far less virus circulating in the community, the chances of an infection are drastically reduced, and with everyone in their travel party testing negative twice, they can feel secure in their bubble as they get to work.
“We all pretty much agree that we have an advantage being in Canada,” said Jansen.
Their work at Rogers Centre is due to pick up Thursday night, when the club plays its first intrasquad game, a regular occurrence from then on in preparation for the July 24 opener at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Through the Blue Jays’ first three days in Toronto, they had side sessions, live batting practice and lots of the usual drill-work. As they transition to some game-action, not having to play an actual opponent will allow them to control flow and ensure everyone gets what they need out of the day.
“They can play every day and if they’re having a long inning, we can stop it and we can switch the inning,” said Montoyo. “That’s the good thing about having control of what you do. I see my guys playing every day and building up to play nine innings and really be in baseball shape.”
For Jansen, who has 2½ weeks to get ready for 2½ months of squatting for nine innings, that means getting as many reps as he can. On Wednesday, he caught five or six innings during live batting practice, took several at-bats and caught some bullpens “when I can.”
“You don’t want to go zero to 100 right away and you want to ease into it,” he explained, “but you kind of have to do it quick.”
That’s a fine line to walk, especially for pitchers, but really for anyone suddenly thrown into the daily grind from differing degrees of lockdown. Pulled hamstrings, strained obliques and sore elbows are among the types of soft-tissue ailments everyone must guard against.
“We’re all professionals. We all know what we need to do,” said Jansen. “We all have our own routines on, if this was the regular season now, what we’d be doing after and before games. Obviously, you’ve got to be aware of it, you’ve got to to take care of it early and it’s not a lot of time right now. But we’re pros, we know what we need to do to get our body right and keep it healthy. Got to do the best you can.”
Doing the best you can certainly sounds like mantra for the times.
Montoyo said the group of Blue Jays back in Florida are with coaches who are helping them run through workouts, keeping them at pace with the majority of the group based in Toronto. Asked if the team was at risk of being without some starters come opening day, he replied, “No, no, no.”
Their absence underlines the fragility of this entire venture for the Blue Jays, and for baseball as a whole. A single lapse in judgment can have far-reaching consequences, which is why on top of talent, and desire, and all the usual stuff teams need to win, a respect for the protocol is essential, too.
“That’s the message that I gave them,” said Montoyo, “and to tell you the truth, I love how our guys are happy to be here, and hungry to play this game.”