PEORIA, Ariz. — The quiet of the morning made the setting feel eerie and abandoned. Normally, the area would be awash in the din of baseball. But there were no sounds of chatter, hard-thrown baseballs popping leather mitts or the distinct crack made when a ball strikes the sweet spot of a maple bat.
But the day after the sports world was put on hold by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, there was silence on the empty, rain-soaked fields of the Mariners complex.
A father and his teenage son, both clad in Mariners coats, walked hopefully around the perimeter of the fenced-off facility, past the padlocked gates where fans normally enter to watch workouts. They peered into the windows of the main office building, tried the doors — which were also locked — and then wandered some more. No players, no autographs, no baseball.
The players’ major league and minor league parking lots still had plenty of cars, meaning players were inside the complex doing a variety of things: working out, getting treatment in the training room or just hanging out in the clubhouse. But they alone, along with essential Mariners employees, were the only people allowed to be there. The facility is shut down from the public and the media, and on Friday MLB canceled all spring-training activities and players can stay at their facilities, head home or to their team’s home city.
The past 48 hours have been an emotional whirlwind that has never been experienced on the sports landscape.
“Yesterday was one of the craziest days I’ve had in baseball,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said via conference call Friday morning. “I went through the strike as a player. I can only compare it to that. We went through our normal morning meetings, interviewing a few guys, understanding we were probably getting some news on directions on later in the day. Then when (Mariners chairman) John Stanton came down addressed the team on the delay to the start of the season and all those things, it was pretty surreal.”
The Mariners know they are just a small part of it.
“Not just for baseball but all over our country with the number of live sporting events shut down, a lot of people are impacted,” Servais said. “But that is not the important thing here. The important thing is we do the right thing for everyone in our country, and certainly Seattle, where it’s been hit really, really hard. You see the number of people struggling and dealing with the situation health-wise, but also what it’s done to the economy. It really affects everybody. Baseball is just a very, very minute part of this. We will adjust. We will be back. It just has to be at the right time.”
Justin Dunn was throwing a bullpen session with Taijuan Walker on Thursday morning when Servais came out and told them to shut it down. Shortly thereafter, Stanton addressed the players in a meeting to inform them of MLB’s decision.
“For me and my friend group, it kind of felt like a movie,” he said. “It hasn’t really felt real. Skip walked over and said ‘Shut it down.’ We were like, ‘What’s going on?’ You never get told to shut a bullpen down, so we knew it was important.”
Dunn’s father, Edmund, works as a high-level director in the Department of Health for the state of New York. So, he was well versed in the spread of the coronavirus and its dangers. He watched the dominoes fall when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive and the leagues started to react.
“I’ve been monitoring it for a while,” Dunn said. “I’ve been getting updates on this since it really first got going. But then to see what happened in the (NBA) and you realize how quickly it could spread through a league with one person getting it, and how they’re all touching the same ball or same puck and you realize it’s probably best for everybody in that situation to just shut it down and get things under control and keep everybody’s best interests at heart. So in a way, I kind of saw this coming, but you never really think it’s real until it happens.”
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was scheduled to hold a team meeting at 9 a.m. Friday for the players in MLB camp to address the situation and update them. As of Friday morning, the Mariners were planning on allowing players to come in and work out on a limited basis.
“What we’ve talked about through the weekend here is trying to limit the size of the group that’s working out together,” Servais said. “We’ve talked about coming in with groups where you may have 20-25 players in at one time versus 50. Also in our building there’s about 150 minor league players as well, so just trying to limit the exposure of the number of people in the building at the same time. I think once we get through the weekend, we may have a little bit more clarification from MLB and the Players Association on where we go. But, this is just the beginning. We have to be really cautious, make good decisions and educate our players as best we can.”
Given the routine-oriented professional life baseball players lead, they desire information to process and plan their lives. Thursday’s decision to shut things down was welcomed, but now they want to know what is next.
“We were glad to get some information and glad that we’re trying to get things under control and do the right thing for everybody,” Dunn said. “We’re just hoping to get some more information and keep learning about what’s going on and how we’re going to handle the whole process.”
“It’s a relief, but then there’s more questions,” he said. “There’s always questions to follow up other questions and answers.”