‘Weird feeling’ for Blue Jays and baseball as Opening Day in stasis arrives

Blue Jays reporter Hazel Mae joins Lead Off on the morning of what was supposed to be opening day for the club, to discuss what she was most looking forward to.

TORONTO – Jordan Romano plans to spend Opening Day doing what he’s done virtually every other day over the past couple of weeks. Binge-watch some Netflix. Play a little Fortnite. Push some weights around on the driveway of his Dunedin, Fla., rental home. Throw weighted balls against a wall.

“That’s where we’re at,” the Canadian right-hander from Markham, Ont., says over the phone. “The walls are cinderblock. Pretty sturdy.”

The past few days, however, have felt a little different. On Monday and Tuesday, Romano had hoped to be with the Toronto Blue Jays in Montreal for a pair of exhibition games at Olympic Stadium against the New York Yankees. During that time, the 26-man roster to begin the 2020 season would have been finalized and given the way he was heaving high-90s heat on the regular this spring — along with Rafael Dolis’s appendectomy — he almost certainly would have broken camp as a big-leaguer for the first time.

A workout at Rogers Centre on Wednesday would have followed before the 2020 campaign started Thursday against the Boston Red Sox. Close your eyes and you can see it all playing out, sold-out crowd, packed concourses, the sense of anticipation. All the good stuff. Open them back up and you return to the indefinite stasis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Things were definitely going well. I don’t want to assume I was going to make the team, but even just going to Montreal, that’s something I’ve never done before, I was really looking forward to that,” says Romano. “With Opening Day, I put myself in position to maybe be there and it’s kind of strange.

“I’m sitting here in Dunedin. We’re not even practising right now and we should be starting. It’s definitely a change of pace. I’ve been talking to all my buddies and it doesn’t feel right not to be playing baseball right now. It’s definitely a weird feeling.”

Weird is an apt word to describe just about everything these days, the world upended by the novel coronavirus, the most basic of actions we all took for granted suddenly perilous due to the highly contagious pathogen.

There are concerns in society far greater than the suspension of Opening Day, but even for non-baseball fans, the beginning of the season is a refreshing signpost, one that marks an unofficial end to winter, signifying the looming arrival of warmer weather and symbolizing the optimism inherent to renewal.

Few events on the sport calendar are as romanticized, which makes its absence all the more gnawing.

“Opening day is always really special,” says Romano. “You work all off-season, you go through spring training and finally there’s Opening Day. You’re probably a little bit more nervous than normal, thinking about all the goals you want to accomplish for the season, the grind of it, too, how you’re going to get through it.

“Again, it’s weird to be sitting here because I should be having anxiety, the excitement of Opening Day, and we’re not playing.”

What magnifies the sense of loss is that suggestions of when the season might actually start are merely guesses, nothing more. Speaking with ESPN on Wednesday night, commissioner Rob Manfred said his “optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up,” but health officials hold the hammer on that front.

While U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for an aggressive restart of the country in stages after a truncated period of social distancing, it’s hard to imagine a green light for gatherings in the tens of thousands any time soon, especially with how easily COVID-19 spreads.

“The most important thing that we can be is open-minded and creative to give this game to our fans as soon and as much as we possibly can in a safe way,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said during a conference call Wednesday. “I don’t think we should do it as soon as possible without being safe. It needs to be safe.”

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Like so many other aspects of life right now, safe is a moving target and how we define that a month from now could be far different than our outlook right now.

Dr. Lawrence Rocks — a chemist whose son, Burton, is a baseball agent representing Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, among others — says “the incidence of infection must come down dramatically, towards zero, to allow current baseball facilities to be safe for the general public.”

A solution Rocks is preaching to help ease the spread of COVID-19 is the mass-production and widespread usage of activated-carbon masks.

“Activated-carbon is the absorbent of choice amongst chemists, from air and water pollution to virus and bacteria absorption,” he says via email. “But masks need to be lightweight and easily distributable. I have advocated a newly designed surgical-style activated carbon-filter mask for hospital workers, health-care professionals, and the general public.”

With hospitals across the continent experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment, that’s no simple task, and Rocks argues that the American Congress must create a pandemic agency with the power to fund production of medical supplies and set quarantine guidelines.

Restoring public confidence will be pivotal for the game to restart, as will ensuring that the players feel safe — since even a single case of the novel coronavirus in the close-quarters of a clubhouse could be devastating.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Romano chose to remain in Dunedin once the Blue Jays shut down their facility in Dunedin out of concern that he might pick up the virus in an airport and unknowingly spread it to his parents, Joe and Cynthia — who are on the cusp of the high-risk age group — once he got home.

His landlord extended his lease for as long as is needed, giving him not only a place to stay but now also a makeshift gym. Romano is regularly in contact with teammates Danny Jansen and Ryan Borucki, both also in the Dunedin area, although they are wisely keeping apart.

“It’s an interesting time, but there’s still no time to waste,” says Romano. “We’re treating this like an extended off-season, still trying to get our work in so we’re ready for whenever the season starts.”

That will take time, whenever it happens, as Romano isn’t even throwing right now because of how closely he’s adhering to social-distancing protocols. Atkins described the overarching theme of the club’s instructions to its pitchers as “to pull back in a very significant way.”

For now, the weighted ball program Romano follows is providing “the workload I need” as he seeks to not just maintain the momentum from an impressive spring, but perhaps even improve upon on it, too.

“I had a few good outings and I want to take the positives and see what I can build on,” says the 26-year-old. “I feel like my body and my arm were strong going into camp. Now it’s, how can I get a little stronger when we go back into it. There’s really nothing else we can do.”

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