A year later: The photo when it all changed

March 11th, 2021

PHOENIX -- Craig Counsell has a photo to remind him of the day the baseball world stopped.

It was March 12, 2020, a Thursday in the middle of Spring Training, and Counsell was back at American Family Fields of Phoenix after a short sleep. The Brewers were coming off a night game at the Dodgers that had been cut short by rain and the forecast wasn’t looking any better. Split-squad games against the D-backs and Rockies were pre-emptively postponed.

By midday, Major League Baseball had decided to put Spring Training on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Soon, the Brewers’ complex was empty. They wouldn’t play another team for 131 days.

“I remember walking out of the park when that storm had finished and it was a little bit of an eerie feeling because it didn’t look like a Phoenix that I had ever seen before,” Counsell said. “That’s what else sticks with me from that day -- walking out of that stadium wondering what was going on with both the storm and with us leaving.”

Before leaving, Counsell snapped a couple of photos looking across one of the Brewers’ practice fields. The infield is under water. The green grass is covered in white hail. And a full rainbow stretches across a jet-black sky.

A year later, as the Brewers and MLB enter a new season with fans back in the stands and an increasing sense of optimism, it’s the uncertainty that everyone remembers most about those days last March when things around them began to change.

Clubhouses closed to reporters on March 9 to limit the number of people in contact with players and coaches. On March 11, while Freddy Peralta was pitching that rain-shortened night game against the Dodgers, Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns was in his office at American Family Fields of Phoenix when news broke that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA season was suspended. Stearns sensed that the following day would bring similar news for baseball. The next morning, March 12, Counsell was surprised to see Grapefruit League games in Florida begin as scheduled.

“I was pitching that day,” veteran Brewers left-hander Brett Anderson said. “Then you get there and they said, ‘We’re not going to play, and potentially are going home.’ You’re like, ‘Is this a bad joke?’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s true.”

“Man, it was crazy. It was stressful,” outfielder Avisaíl García said. “Everybody was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

Counsell and several players were brought into a storage room that was turned into space for socially distanced press conferences. A bicycle belonging to former Brewers pitcher Jhoulys Chacín stood next to boxes of bubble gum and sunflower seeds, and a cot was pinned against a wall by cases of bottled water. Brandon Woodruff was in the room that morning. The NBA situation and the specter of travel restrictions had him concerned about his wife, Jonie, who was in Mississippi, pregnant with their first child.

If MLB paused, Woodruff wondered, would he be able to get to her?

“After talking to her, I just remember thinking, ‘I need to get home as quick as possible,’” he said.

Just after noon Arizona time, MLB announced it was suspending Spring Training games and postponing Opening Day by two weeks. Brewers players initially were told to remain in Arizona to await further guidance.

That quickly changed.

“By the end of that day, we began sending players home,” Stearns said. “We were responsible for getting them home. It’s one thing for the 50 guys in Major League camp, but we had an entire Minor League camp that was active as well. We had to get close to 200 players home and an additional 50-75 staff. It was a tremendous group effort and accomplishment.”

International travel was particularly thorny. A group of Minor League players from Dominican Republic and Venezuela were on a bus heading to Phoenix Sky Harbor airport that had to turn around at the news of cancelled flights. The Brewers wound up housing more than a dozen players all summer in Phoenix.

At the same time, 16-year-old Venezuelan prospect Hedbert Perez was in the Dominican Republic getting ready to travel to Phoenix to join Minor League camp. He wound up spending the next four months in the D.R. with two other players.

“I didn’t know how to cook very well,” Perez said. “Now I think I’m a good cook.”

“Rudy Gobert and the NBA was definitely the big news for everybody and the NBA canceling everything told us there was going to be some kind of break,” Counsell said, “but we had no idea the length of it or what it meant or that we’d all be going home and spending time with our families. I don’t think any of us expected that. That’s what I remember.”

The Brewers did not reconvene until early July at Miller Park for the start of Summer Camp, so players stayed sharp on their own. Christian Yelich played catch in the street with his brother like they did when they were kids. Manny Piña kept his legs in shape by pushing an SUV up the road. Woodruff worked out in his garage gym and played catch -- very carefully -- with Jonie. He also ran through his Netflix queue.

“I watched Days of Our Lives with my grandmother when I was a kid, and I have to tell you, I never thought I would see it again,” Woodruff said. “Then came quarantine. That’s when you know you’re pretty bored and stuck at home.”

For players all over the world, Zoom became an essential tool of player development.

Take left-hander Quintin Torres-Costa. At home in Hawaii, Torres-Costa set up his iPhone in a park and took slow-motion video of himself pitching into a net. He occasionally sent it to Brewers coaches for feedback. The Brewers did their best to stay in touch with players from throughout the system in order to further their development as best as possible, but it fell on players to stay focused.

“I was my own teacher, kind of,” Torres-Costa said. “I did some biomechanics research and realized what I needed to do. For me, it just made me appreciate every time I was on the mound. I had the mindset of, ‘Don’t take anything for granted.'”

Everyone hopes 2021 offers a return to normalcy. This week, they reflected on the strange year it’s been.

“At certain points during this process, I feel like it’s been a long time,’ Woodruff said. “But now, sitting here a year later, it really feels like it was yesterday that we were here one minute and leaving the next.”

Can Anderson, the pithy, dry-humored veteran, believe a whole year has passed?

“Yeah,” he deadpanned. “Time doesn’t fly in a pandemic.”