PEORIA, Ariz. — Here in the sun-drenched, baseball-filled warmth — 85 degrees at one point Friday without a cloud in the sky — the lingering gray and cold of the Pacific Northwest combined with the fear and anxiety over COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, that has blanketed Seattle in the past week couldn’t seem farther away.
There is little discussion here of school closures, employees working from home or diagnosed cases. In the insulated world of professional baseball, the focus is still on swing changes, pitching mechanics and position battles. But in the Mariners’ clubhouse, the players and staff aren’t unaware of what is transpiring in the city they call home from April to October.
“It’s real,” manager Scott Servais said. “People are talking about it. And it’s all over social media. Our trainer has addressed the group on the aspects of cleanliness and how you need to take care of yourself and washing your hands and doing all those other things. We haven’t gone any further than that.”
Beyond the players’ feelings of empathy for the people in Seattle and their own concerns, there is the logistical and business side to all of this.
The Mariners open the 2020 season March 26 against the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park. With each day of new confirmed cases in the area and the increased measures to stop the spread, it seems like playing that game might be in jeopardy.
The Mariners released a statement this week saying they expect to play baseball March 26:
“The health and well-being of our fans and employees is our top priority. We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with local public health authorities. Right now, public health officials are not advising the postponement or cancellation of public events. We fully expect to play baseball at T-Mobile Park beginning March 26. Currently, we are following guidance from public health authorities and our medical staff to provide training and resources to safeguard the health and well-being of our staff and provide a safe and sanitary facility for the start of the season in four weeks. This is an evolving situation and we’ll continue to keep fans updated by email, social media and our website.”
Per sources, Major League Baseball is actively monitoring the situation closely while getting input from several government organizations. There also has been communication with other pro sports leagues in an effort to share information and outline steps being taken to combat the situation.
MLB also is having a separate dialogue with teams, and sources indicate the communication with the Mariners has been steady.
The role of the players union should not be underestimated. Besides players’ concerns about the potential health risks of returning to Seattle, there are opposing players being asked to travel there for games. The opening homestand features a four-game series with the Rangers and three with the Minnesota Twins, from March 26 to April 1.
The premise of playing home games away from Seattle represents a major financial hit for the Mariners, even in a season when attendance is expected to be down. It would be almost impossible to postpone the seven games and try to make them up later in the season at T-Mobile Park. And really, the Mariners know that lost dollars due to the situation aren’t important in comparison to public health.
Within the clubhouse, the fate of opening day has yet to be discussed.
“I haven’t thought about it much,” starting pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “I’ve heard in Italy they are doing no fans for a month at all sporting events. We realize that could be a reality for us. We’re obviously hoping that’s not the case, but it can’t be a huge factor us. We have to do our jobs.”
Servais has not heard any discussion of changing the opening-day venue or not having fans at games.
“It’s business as usual here,” Servais said. “ … If things like that play in when we get closer to it, I’ll be made aware. But I’m sure those decisions will be made above me, and we’ll adjust accordingly. This is new territory for everybody. You want to do the right thing.”
What could the Mariners do if Seattle is deemed an unsafe location to open the season? Sources indicate a variety of contingencies have been discussed on the periphery but nothing concrete. There could be games without fans in attendance. The Mariners and Rangers could remain in Arizona and play those games in the area at a spring-training facility.
The Arizona Diamondbacks also open the season at home. So Chase Field in Phoenix will be used. But if the need for an MLB field is demanded, the Mariners and Rangers could play day games there.
Could the Mariners go on the road for those first games instead, traveling to Texas and Minnesota? It’s possible, but the new Globe Life Field in Arlington is still awaiting the finishing touches to be regular-season ready. The Twins open the season at Oakland and would have to figure out travel to whatever needed destination. Also, the weather in Minneapolis isn’t ideal in early April.
This doesn’t appear to be a decision that can be taken right up until March 26. Given travel logistics, it likely would have to be made at least a week in advance.
Gonzales served as the Mariners’ representative to the MLB players union last year, and he likely will hold the title again in 2020. He has yet to hear from Tony Clark, the head of the players union, or any representatives about the situation in Seattle. The safety of the players in Seattle and opposing players traveling to the city could be a concern.
“Especially for us in Seattle, where this is has been a bigger deal than most other cities,” Gonzales said. “I’m sure with our meeting coming up, I’m sure that we’ll touch on that and then kind of go from there.”
Meanwhile, for players such as Gonzales and third baseman Kyle Seager, who live in the Seattle area year-round, there’s a heightened interest. They’ve been monitoring the news coming out of Seattle.
“We definitely are,” Seager said, including his wife Julie. “It’s a real thing. It sounds like it’s causing quite a stir up there. My wife is monitoring it very close. It’s definitely a concern.”
For Seager, this was his first offseason in Seattle. His son, Cru, is enrolled in school in Issaquah. And with more schools closing, Seager isn’t certain whether his family will return to the area or go to their home in North Carolina after spring training.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Those are all real decisions. I know a lot of the schools where we are, there’s a lot of them are kind of closing down and shutting down. Those are all definitely real decisions where if my son is not in school, does it makes sense to them to go out there and you know potentially be around it.”
Gonzales lives in West Seattle, and his wife Monica grew up in the area. They’ve been following the news closely and communicating with their friends and family back home.
“We’ve been kind of preparing ourselves for what the town might look like when we get back,” Gonzales said. “It’s understanding what everyone’s kind of going through and talking with our family and friends up there to see how everybody’s doing. We’ve obviously seen some schools closed down. So that’s worrisome, but I think the hospitals up there and the community efforts so far from what we’ve seen have been getting the job done and try to contain this thing.”