Coaches team up in battle against COVID-19

April 13th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a feeling of shared helplessness around the country as people shelter in place while this coronavirus pandemic runs its course. While first responders, medical professionals and researchers battle on the front lines, the vast majority of people are hunkered down at home, flattening the curve, but unable to take action.

At home in Washington state, Yankees catching coordinator Tanner Swanson just wanted to feel like he could actively contribute in some positive way from his corner of the baseball world.

That's how Coaches vs. COVID was born in the group text that Swanson has maintained for years with Twins Minor League coordinators Donegal Fergus and Billy Boyer. Expectations were measured when Swanson first floated the idea of regularly scheduled collaborative webinars on Zoom for baseball coaches around the country, with small donations to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center suggested for those tuning in.

In the span of around two weeks, the initiative has already raised more than $9,500 to support COVID-19 prevention and treatment research at Fred Hutch thanks to completed or scheduled webinars about hitting, catching, infield and pitching development among coaches from all around the professional, amateur and academy ranks -- and the momentum is only picking up.

"A lot of people want to contribute and want to help, but don't know how or can't get out of the house," Swanson said. "This seemed like a way to do something positive from home and try to raise some money."

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, based in Seattle, is one of the world's leading research facilities and has added COVID-19-related research and clinical work to its mission to diagnose, prevent and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases around the world. Swanson already held a close connection with Fred Hutch and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, as his late sister was involved with both organizations before she passed away from breast cancer in 2018.

Fergus was eager to help Swanson in any way that he could, but he was taken aback at first by the ambition of a weekly hitting webinar. He figured he'd maybe get 25 people or so in his first event and see some drop-off thereafter. Instead, nearly 200 people flooded into the Zoom chat on Thursday as Fergus directed a seminar that cycled through short talks from 10 coaches from both the professional and collegiate ranks.

After Swanson himself led a catching seminar on April 4, he followed that up by bringing in Cubs catching coach Craig Driver for another extended session on Saturday, which drew another audience of nearly 100 coaches from around the country.

"It was pretty cool and humbling," Fergus said. "That's really cool that we have so many people. And we had lots of people on there, too, where you don't need to listen to this, we've been friends for a long time. But they want to show support and they want to be a part of it. Again, that speaks to the connection piece that the baseball world has. We all are pretty connected and that network is pretty special."

It's natural that Twins coordinators would have a heavy involvement in these webinars, as both Fergus and Boyer are currently employed by the club and Swanson had been the Twins' Minor League catching coordinator before he was hired away by the Yankees last offseason. But Fergus sees it as a point of pride all the same when so many coaches from throughout the organization have stepped up to play their part in this effort.

For example, Fergus' hitting seminar featured Triple-A Rochester hitting coach Matt Borgschulte, Class A Advanced Fort Myers hitting coaches Nate Rasmussen and Brian Meyer, Class A Cedar Rapids hitting coach Bryce Berg, Double-A Pensacola hitting coach Ryan Smith and GCL Twins hitting coach Shawn Schlechter.

"It's really cool that we've jumped on it and I guess are leading a little bit in that space," Fergus said. "There's a lot of people out there that are doing it, and I'm not surprised at all, just based on the people in our [organization]. And that's a testament to those guys that have hired all of those people -- Derek [Falvey] and Thad [Levine] and [Jeremy Zoll] and Alex [Hassan]."

For Fergus, Boyer and the Twins, the next step to extend this initiative will begin this week, when they will aim to launch a series of shorter webinars aimed at youth coaches and players in the greater Twin Cities area as a means of giving back to and establishing deeper ties with the local baseball community in this time.

As for Swanson, he hopes that the success of Coaches vs. COVID will encourage similar initiatives from coaches all around the country.

"So far, it's been primarily professional coaches who have been spearheading these different seminars, but honestly, the design was kind of a grassroots effort to just kind of inspire other coaches at all levels to use their own networks and their own communities to put together professional development opportunities, to talk about the game, to share their experiences, to share their expertise, and to do it within this umbrella for a good cause," Swanson said.