March 12 was the day that sports stood still. The NBA postponed its season and the NCAA cancelled March Madness. The baseball world was on pins and needles as teams continued to gear up for Opening Day - which was just two weeks way.While the Tampa Bay Rays hosted the
March 12 was the day that sports stood still. The NBA postponed its season and the NCAA cancelled March Madness. The baseball world was on pins and needles as teams continued to gear up for Opening Day - which was just two weeks way.
While the Tampa Bay Rays hosted the Philadelphia Phillies inside of Charlotte Sports Park, many current, future and former Charlotte Stone Crabs went through their usual routines on the back fields. Unlike the Major League players who were four weeks into their six-week spring training, the minor leaguers were just getting acclimated. After all, their first game wasn't scheduled until April 9.
But the next day, the Rays informed all of their players that there would be no baseball for the foreseeable future. Not knowing how long the shut-down would last, most players hung tight for a few days. But before long, most went back home.
My roommates left right away, but I didn't want to go back to New York. It's bad up there," Stone Crabs outfielder Garrett Whitley said.
Whitley, who was raised in upstate New York, stayed in Port Charlotte until his temporary lease expired in early April. His 2019 Stone Crabs teammate, Drew Strotman, was also one of the few Rays prospects to stay in the area.
"It's going to be weird no matter what," Strotman said. "This year I've already chalked up to being weird. Everybody is just trying to make the best of the very limited resources they do have access to while home."
Strotman underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2018, and purchased a home in North Port before beginning his 12-month rehabilitation process in Port Charlotte. While most of his teammates went home immediately, Strotman and Rays prospect Michael Mercado chose to avoid contact with their families and felt comfortable staying at their North Port residence.
Strotman and Mercado have begun their new normal together, which includes the daily struggle of finding a place to throw and work out. Strotman said they have been kicked off multiple fields during the process, and had to rely on body-weight exercises, since they don't own weights.
"You have to adapt and find the schedule that works for you," he said. "Monday to Friday, we're just getting throwing in at a local park. Just staying on top of nutrition the best you can to keep the body in shape."
During his final few weeks in Port Charlotte, Whitley was plotting his next move while also recovering from facial fractures he suffered in the Rays' dugout during a spring game with the Orioles. Fortunately, he didn't need surgery. But he had to deal with physical pain while everyone else was focused on the emotional pain.
"March was one of the weirdest months of my life. It was just so stressful every day," Whitley said. "There was so much uncertainty, I was always on the phone with my parents trying to figure out what I was going to do. It was stressful."
Both prospects have settled in to their quarantine routines. Strotman has passed the hours with video games and family video chats, while Whitley has enjoyed some on-field work.
After packing up his spring training gear, Whitley spent a few days with friends on the east coast of Florida before shooting up to Virginia. Rather than head home and hunker down in the nation's most devastated state, another friend offered to put him up.
"I got really lucky," he said. "I'm able to work out, and it's in the 70s - so I'm able to get out and run. The situation here wound up great."
Whitley's agent put him in touch with a handful of other professional players in the area. They formulated a schedule to meet up once or twice a week to get work in against live competition.
"I've had the chance to stand in on some live at bats," he said. "It's good work. I thought I was just going to be hitting into a tee or into a net. To have a chance to actually get out on the field against actual pitchers has been great. I know a lot of guys don't have that chance."
Both players are grateful that their families are safe and that they've been able to find some level of normalcy in a time where so many others are struggling. When posed with the questions about baseball's return, they both lit up.
"You're going to have to adapt to the discomfort and just get back to playing baseball," said Strotman. "Everybody is going to be absolutely chomping at the bit to get back out there and super excited when it does happen. It's going to be a lot of fun."
"I'm just going to be so happy," Whitley said. "I think about it every day. I miss all my friend, I miss all my teammates and I miss being out on the field. I just love playing ball. I'm itchy and antsy to get back out there. I can't wait."