PEORIA, Ariz. — On a sunny but somewhat cool Thursday, less than 10 hours after a day’s worth of pounding rain had seemingly washed the Phoenix Valley clean of everything but the coronavirus pandemic, the last remnants of Mariners spring training were being removed.
The once-bustling complex lay nearly dormant. Only a few clubhouse personnel lingered, carefully storing luggage and boxes dropped off by the last remaining staff and players in the area, and attending to the final aspects of a closure that was ordered Sunday by club ownership.
There wasn’t a sign on the building that read: “CLOSED.”
There didn’t need to be.
The last hope of a quick return to normalcy was shuttered, because no one is quite sure when or if baseball will return.
With Major League Baseball announcing Monday it would further postpone the plan of starting the season April 9, and follow the recent guidelines of an eight-week restriction of social gatherings recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, the Mariners, like many other clubs, decided to close their complex.
A positive test for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, by a Reds employee in nearby Goodyear also factored into the decision.
“Obviously it’s been a day-by-day affair as we as we learn more on a league level and certainly as we discuss internally and with our players,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a conference call. “We decided yesterday afternoon to just close the complex completely, and now we are down to roughly a very skeleton staff of clubhouse personnel trying to get everything locked up and we will see how this thing plays out. But for the foreseeable future we’re not planning on any activity here in Arizona, and the players have effectively been asked to head home and be safe.”
Setting dates on when spring training might resume or opening day seems pointless. It changes with each day as more information about the spread of the pandemic is reported.
“What we’ve urged the guys, is to go where they feel safest, and that is from a health standpoint,” Dipoto said. “There are a lot of guys now they’ve made their way back to their natural homes or somewhere that they feel safe going, and we told them to view this as something where you feel comfortable for the next two months and then we will reassess. And we don’t know where this will go. We told them we may be able to adjust up, and may be forced to adjust down in terms of our expectations.”
Dipoto, who is in the process of packing up his rental in Arizona and driving back to Seattle, emphasized to them that it goes beyond baseball.
“Right now our only true concern here is health and well-being throughout,” he said. “So it’s a strange time in the world for everybody, and for baseball players, too. We’re just trying to make the right decisions to keep everybody safe.”
When spring training was suspended, and a brief hiatus was the hope, an enthusiastic group of 43 players decided to remain in the area and work out. With each day and more restrictions being placed by MLB, including sending nonroster players home, players started to lose the motivation to wait it out.
“When we started this, we had a very high percentage of our players opted to stay,” Dipoto said. “Little by little, that started to trickle down. On Sunday we saw another notable shift, and going into Monday we had 28 players from the 40-man roster that had decided to stick around.”
The Mariners put a plan in place for the 28 players to work out in small groups with workouts in intervals of 90 minutes so there would be no crossover, and so they would stay below the 10-person limit in the gym.
“Each group had a skeleton staff that was working with them, and of the groups of 10 I would say, if I’m being kind, roughly 50 percent of those guys were actually showing up,” Dipoto said. “So as we got to the point (Wednesday) where we pulled the plug, there were about 10 or 12 guys that were actually coming down and taking advantage of the workout time. And frankly, we were concerned with the idea of group gatherings of any sort, particularly after we got the news (Wednesday) there was a positive test of a baseball staffer down here in Arizona with another club.”
The only players that are still in the area under the Mariners’ supervision are six young players from Venezuela, who can’t return to a home in upheaval. The Mariners have closed their complex in the Dominican Republic where they might otherwise be housed.
“It has been recommended that we do not open that facility right now,” Dipoto said. “So our young Venezuelan players who are unable to get back to Venezuela, they’re staying here in Arizona, and like the rest of the players here starting today don’t have a facility to work out.
“But they’re housed, they’re cared for and we know that they’re being fed properly which that’s as safe as we can keep them right now. And they’ll have this group of Arizona-based employees with the Mariners to look over them day to day, which is the best position we can keep them.”
The Mariners have not tested any players for coronavirus. None has shown symptoms, but they will be monitored by the team.
“We’re checking in with our players every day, or medical-training teams are checking in using a variety of mediums, and right now we don’t have a player that’s shown symptoms,” Dipoto said.
But he also knows his players will still try to find ways to work out within the boundaries of what is recommended.
“We’ve had our strength trainers put together a program, using resistance bands, for any of our guys,” he said. “And we’ve built what we think is a very moderate throwing program and effectively told our guys: ‘We need you to go into offseason mode psychologically, emotionally and understand whatever time we get back to playing, we’ll have time to ramp back up. We’re not going to ask guys to go from, from zero to 60 at the snap of a finger.'”
If/when baseball returns, the idea of getting ready for the season too quickly could factor into an increase in injuries, specifically for pitchers. Dipoto was adamant that team would avoid that “zero to 60 aspect” for a collection of young pitchers that are expected to be the future of their rebuilding process.
“That’s a Mariners thing,” he said. “I have no idea from the league level because we have no idea when we may start our season. … It could be anything from three-inning starts to a 10-man rotation just to make sure we are properly taking care of the future health of the pitchers.”
Considerations for player health are being collectively bargained by MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association. One suggested is an expanded active roster of 30 players to start the season. Other aspects such as service time, player compensation, contract opt-outs and bonuses affected by this shutdown, the upcoming amateur draft, roster moves and compensation are being discussed.