PEORIA, Ariz. — In another example of how fast the situation can change surrounding sports and the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, Major League Baseball made a reversal of a policy expressed less than 24 hours before, announcing that all spring-training camps were to come a halt and that players could return to their homes.
The official statement was released at 4:27 p.m. But news of the change had started to leak from sources in the players union and the league throughout the day.
The official statement:
“After an in-person meeting with MLBPA officials in Arizona, Major League Baseball announced today that Spring Training camps will be suspended, effective immediately. Major League players can elect to return home, remain in their Spring Training cities, or return to their Club’s home city. This step is in the best interests of players, employees and the communities who host Spring Training.
MLB will continue to monitor ongoing events and undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts. We send our best wishes to all the individuals and communities who have been impacted by coronavirus.”
The decision to allow players to leave spring training was new. A day earlier, when MLB announced it was shutting down spring-training games and delaying the start of the 2020 season by at least two weeks, most owners, including Mariners chairman John Stanton, stated their preference would be to have players remain at spring training, feeling it would allow the greatest amount of safety and potential care.
But sources indicate the players union didn’t want any sort of restrictions placed on players’ choices of where to live while baseball is shut down. And for logical reasons, MLB agreed to that request.
Given this new direction, it seems MLB’s hope of opening the 2020 season on April 9 is even more unrealistic. Even as general manager Jerry Dipoto discussed, in a conference call, what the Mariners will do and how they might treat workouts for those players deciding to stay in Phoenix, he was blunt about the situation.
“We have no expectation of playing any time soon,” he said.
The uncertainty of the situation has left teams and players moving hour by hour. Though MLB’s latest announcement does bring momentary clarity.
“Today was a very unusual day,” Dipoto said. “I don’t think any of us, and I guess me particularly, was naturally trained for crisis management. This was a crash course in how we are going to deal with it. It was a trying day. It was a day that took a lot of twists and turns. We met with our major league players at 9:15 and then called them back to the facility between 12:30 and 1 p.m. because we just received more information.”
That information was the option of being able to leave spring training. Dipoto said three of the 49 players from MLB spring training have opted to leave camp and return home. Only one of the three is on the team’s 40-man roster. Out of respect for those players’ privacy, he wouldn’t name them.
“It’s an individual decision for each player,” he said. “With each of these players we respect their decisions, whether it be family related, which in each of these cases I believe it is, whether it is a matter of getting home and being with family who is presently not with them. That is the situation as we know it. What is, I think, a tremendously encouraging thing for us is we’re going to have a large group of players who have decided to stay the course and continue to prepare.”
As of now, 43 players, some who live in the Phoenix area in the offseason, have committed to remaining and working out at the facility with a “skeletal” crew of staff.
“When we spoke to them this afternoon, we asked that they please give us a yes or a no by noon tomorrow,” he said. “The others were going to go home and talk to their families. We are going to have a big group one way or the other.”
Players can leave at any time if they choose.
“That could change because people are people and they have the ability to change their minds, but right now, we’re pretty excited about the fact that the players want to stay together, and frankly we think that’s probably a good thing for the health and well-being of the group,” Dipoto said.
Dipoto and manager Scott Servais will remain. Some coaches are leaving to be with their families.
“Quite a few staff members from strength and training and coaching ranks from player development through major league live here in the Phoenix valley. Those combined with major league coaches who are staying give us all we need,” Dipoto said. “For purposes of front-office activity, I’ll stay until this resolves itself and the rest of front office will work satellite. We’ll try to run as thin a group as possible at the facility to keep size of the group as small as possible.”
The workouts will be informal and limited in number of players. They’ll have sets of groups come to the facility at different times.
“We’ve discussed the idea that we’ll limit workouts to a couple hours a day and to what’s essential, get in the weight room, get in the training room and take care of your treatments,” he said. “If hitters would like to get swings in the cages and pitchers would like continue to throw bullpens, we’re going to do that. It’s similar to what we’d do in January as we get ready for the start of spring training in February. We are not planning to do anything on the field for foreseeable future, but eventually that will change too as we get more comfortable with the group and how to manage it.”
The 140 minor league players who were in camp to prepare for their season, which is also delayed, are being sent home. Only a handful of minor leaguers who are rehabbing injuries were allowed to remain, so they could work with the training staff.
“It’s a lot of players and we have no real target date for start of their season and for most part, that’s a very young group we didn’t want to put in a difficult position,” Dipoto said. “It’s also very difficult to manage smaller groups coming and going with that kind of volume. Nor did we feel it was wise to choose some to stay and some to send home. We thought that would be unfair.”
The Mariners will be shutting down their facility to all nonessential baseball staff immediately. The complex in Peoria will be closed to the public, including family and friends of players remaining in the area, fans and media. The facility will be deep cleaned Saturday.
Dipoto said he is unaware of any player in the organization needing or undergoing a test for the coronavirus.
“It’s not an uncommon behavior on our part, but we’ve been even more conservative this spring, so if any of our players has any symptom at all, they’re instructed to call our trainers and our trainers coordinate some type of appointment with a physician here in the valley that we are associated with or instruct the player to stay at home until the symptoms are resolved,” Dipoto said. “We’ve been very conservative, but to this point I can’t say for certain what players have done on their own, but at this point I don’t think any player has been tested.”