HOUSTON – Astros catcher Dustin Garneau is used to wearing a mask and being in close quarters on the baseball field. That’s a way of life if you’re a catcher, the one position on the field where social distancing -- stay six feet away from your neighbor! -- doesn’t really work.
When a catcher crouches behind home plate, he does so with an umpire immediately behind his back at all times. The hitter isn’t much farther away, which means Garneau is going to have people around him more than any other player when the Astros' season starts July 24.
In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, where wearing a mask to protect yourself and others and keeping your distance is a reality, Garneau will have to take extra measures to ensure he’s keeping himself safe while playing a position where it’s impossible to stay six feet away.
“Less talking and less interaction with people that I usually would, except the umpire who’s right behind me, and we’re going to be talking the whole game,” he said. “Just being aware of how close and what I can do and what the guy I’m talking to is comfortable with doing. Just being more aware of how we interact with players.”
One hurdle Garneau and some Astros pitchers haven’t quite worked out yet is how they will communicate with each other in an empty stadium. Voices will carry, so when the catcher goes to the mound to talk to the pitcher, they’ll have to find an effective way to communicate from a distance without letting the other team eavesdrop.
“When we start scrimmaging and stuff, we’ll see how it goes, and when we start talking and interacting,” Garneau said. “What I’m worried about is moving side to side on pitches and for the batter to hear my shin guards moving in the dirt.”
Mound visits for catchers weren’t addressed in Major League Baseball’s 101-page return-to-play manual, so it could be up to the umpire to determine what’s allowed. The one sure thing that Garneau won’t be able to do is lick his fingers, which he does after every pitch.
“That’s going to be difficult to learn,” he said. “I’m going to have to dig in and get some dirt on them or something different.”
Astros relief pitcher Cy Sneed said he hadn’t given much thought about how communication with a catcher might change in an empty stadium, and he wasn’t too worried about it.
“I guess we’ll need to do some whispering on top of holding the gloves [to their mouths] and stuff,” he said. “It will definitely be another wrinkle that needs to be worked out. Nothing that won’t be easily overcome.”
All-Star relief pitcher Ryan Pressly hopes there will perhaps be some music blasting between pitches to help mask the conversations. The days of a catcher walking to the mound and placing his arm around the pitcher while both yell into their gloves are gone for now.
“We’re all trying to make adjustments as things play out,” Pressly said. “For baseball players, it’s the best thing to do: we know how to make just adjustments. We’ll figure out a way and see what happens.”