Season delayed, players free to leave camps

March 14th, 2020

After a meeting between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association on Friday, players were told they are allowed to leave their Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona during the national emergency created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Players have the option of remaining in their spring cities, returning to their club’s home city or returning to their offseason homes.

“This step is in the best interests of players, employees and the communities who host Spring Training,” MLB said in an official release Friday evening. “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.”

Players who choose to remain near their team’s spring site will still have access to on-field and training facilities.

“We’re trying to make sure [player travel] happens in a safe and orderly manner,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said on a conference call from Fort Myers, Fla. “For players who want to stay here, we will have the facility available to them if they want to stay here and, obviously, we’re going to continue and intensify all the precautions taken to make sure this is a clean and safe environment for everybody here.”

Quite a few players have made clear their intent to remain near their spring sites, including the entire Yankees team, which voted unanimously to stay, according to player representative Zack Britton.

Prior to Friday afternoon, players had generally been advised to avoid unnecessary travel. But with events still unfolding and the coronavirus rapidly spreading in the United States and elsewhere, the situation has evolved.

"I think everyone understands the circumstances right now,” Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos told reporters on a conference call. “No one has ever faced anything like this. I think everyone knows things are fluid and things are changing. We’re getting information and updates. But you just have to look at this week to see how much things have changed. So, at this point, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”

A day after MLB halted exhibition play, some teams -- including the Rays, Mariners and Phillies -- held team meetings Friday morning. Some -- such as the Indians, Braves and A’s -- held light, informal workouts. All felt their way through an unusual situation in which sports, at large, have been shut down.

A picture taken of the Reds’ Spring Training clubhouse in Goodyear, Ariz., by team vice president of media relations Rob Butcher on Friday morning captured what a global pandemic has brought to the sports world. Jerseys hang in locker stalls in a darkened room. The chairs are empty, the TV sets are off. All that remains to remind us of the bustling activity that took place in the room mere days earlier is, appropriately enough, a bottle of hand sanitizer in the center table.

“The very first thing I noticed,” said Butcher, “was the locked gate on the parking lot. There’s a John Deere tractor and nothing else. It’s completely empty, which I don’t know that I’ve ever seen here before.”

From a pure baseball perspective, Spring Training primarily revolves around pitchers building up their arms for the demands of the regular season. But with the opening date up in the air, it is impossible to know how much ramp-up time will be required once teams are able to return to action.

“It’s hard to plan with the unknown, but [you can] at least create a structure that we can work off of and then narrow the structures down as things start to become more clear as we go,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “One of the things we discussed is making sure we’re doing this together and we’re communicating. And we’re going to be -- we have to be -- fluid. That’s going to be crucial.”

A week ago, teams were advising players to limit contact with fans. Then media access was restricted on Tuesday. Then games were halted on Thursday. Now, players are departing camps completely, making the opening date all the more uncertain.

Empty clubhouses are, for now, a new normal, though Butcher, for one, tried to focus on the finish line.

“When you look at the window at the end of that picture,” Butcher said, “there’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”