The boredom and isolated monotony that comes with social distancing? That’s nothing for Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales after he recently traversed U.S. Route 93, a seemingly endless stretch of two-lane, truck-filled highway through central and northern Nevada that’s part of the drive home to Seattle from spring training in Arizona.
After passing by the ghost town that is now Las Vegas, the drive was filled with open spaces, tiny “towns” of fewer than 500 people, sage brush, cactus and a few roadrunners.
“That was absolutely terrible, that stretch after Vegas of like 600 miles, it was like torture,” he said.
But with the Major League Baseball season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Mariners’ spring complex shut down, it was time for Gonzales and his wife, Monica, to come home to West Seattle.
Feeling it was safer to drive, they packed their stuff, loaded up their Bernedoodle Louis and drove back with teammate and friend Patrick Wisdom and his wife, Caroline.
It was about 23 hours of windshield time.
“We listened to a lot of podcasts,” he said. “Just trying to engage and have thoughtful discussions in the car with our dog. We stopped at some interesting places. We had definitely had our fair share of Red Bulls and (cold-brewed coffee) stashed up in the car, trying to stay ‘caffeined’ up.”
Gonzales arrived in Seattle about 24 hours before he was originally supposed to take the mound at T-Mobile Park to face the Texas Rangers as the Mariners’ opening-day starter. Instead, on Thursday he sat at home. The void of not pitching on baseball’s best day gnawed at him.
“I don’t really know how I feel,” he said. “It’s definitely weird, knowing that we should be playing baseball right now. Trying to think of myself on that schedule and trying to envision myself going to the park, it is a tough time.”
His boy-next-door appearance belies a fiery competitive streak. And that addiction to compete isn’t being satisfied with workouts in his home gym or long-toss sessions with Wisdom.
“When I figure that out, I’ll let you know,” he said. “My wife would say that I need a healthy outlet to compete, so I’m trying to find that. It’s been tough. We’re still trying to figure out what this year is going to look like in a lot of ways.”
As the team’s player rep for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Gonzales had other things to take his mind off not playing. He took part in a multiple conference calls as MLB and the MLBPA negotiated a compromise for the extenuating circumstances of this season, including service time in a truncated season, salaries given, scheduling when baseball does return, changes to the MLB draft and international signings.
“What I learned is that both the PA and the MLB are very, very adamant about playing as many games as we can this year,” he said. “In discussions, when we were figuring out a deal and listening in on conference calls with the PA, that was our main focus to get in as many games as possible. I know that we’re on the same page with MLB to do so.”
The agreement was made official earlier in the week. It offered some hope that when the current collective-bargaining agreement between MLB and MLBPA ends after the 2021 season that a new agreement will be made without a work stoppage.
“There are still tons of logistics here and there, stuff to be figured out … (but) I would say that the negotiations were healthy,” Gonzales said. “I think that we reached a great agreement for the players. And I’m excited for hopefully what this brings going forward because I think when we do have this kind of common issue, we did see that we were able to come together on an agreement.”
Gonzales believes in the idea of playing as many games as possible — within reason. Playing into November and adding doubleheaders are fine, but not at all costs.
“My primary concern is players’ health and safety,” he said. “If and when that line gets crossed, obviously we need to change what we’re doing. There will be a cutoff date where we won’t be playing games too late in the fall. Obviously, the weather is a huge issue for us up here. It’s an issue for other teams we travel to. … But I am in favor of getting in getting in as many games as we can.”
One concern is the health of starting pitchers going into a season with a shortened second spring training. If or when MLB has players return to spring-training facilities, they would hope for a minimal period of time to get ready for the season. Many people within baseball fear that could lead to potential arm injuries.
How much time would he need to be ready?
“I think for me — and it’s obviously different for everybody — I think three, maybe four weeks would be good, but like I said I’m trying to stay at a point where I can easily ramp up in three to four weeks,” he said.
Even then, Gonzales believes starting pitchers will have to be protected.
“It is going to be vital that we do have extra players on our roster,” he said. “I think there is agreement to be able to do that. But I see us, you know, possibly having a six-man rotation or something along those lines. Maybe a piggyback situation for us just to give ourselves, you know, those first couple outings, maybe we go three or four innings for the starters, and that’s who this affects most, really, is starting pitchers. Those are things we need to get creative with.”
For now, he can only work out, wait and follow the guidelines set by public health officials.
“My wife and I have tried to figure out different games to play, a lot of puzzles,” he said. “Fortunately we have our dog, so we have been going on a lot of walks taking him to the park. Just trying to stay as active as we can. … Trying to stay on a routine in this time is definitely difficult to do.”