Seventeen hours and 43 minutes after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and set off a chain reaction that toppled countless other leagues and events in its wake, the 2020 Major League Baseball season, as it was intended, ceased to exist.
It was a matter of when, not if, for baseball and every active sport to shut down. When one singular player in the National Basketball Association – completely disconnected from the sport of baseball or anything besides basketball, for that matter – ended up being the tipping point that led to the sports world going dark one Thursday in March.
Now, over 100 days later – the 100th day being so unironically marked on June 20 by the first day of summer – baseball is set to finally restart. Players will report to their team cities instead of spring training sites, with Opening Day targeted for July 23-24.
For the players – not just MLB but NBA and NHL, too – keeping some sense of normalcy was important to be mentally and physically ready when the call came from Pirates front office personnel. The goals for 2020 haven’t changed, and some players needed to get creative to get their regular work in to meet those goals. Ke’Bryan Hayes sent videos to Pittsburgh hitting coach Rick Eckstein for feedback. Jared Oliva put together a makeshift gym in his garage. Will Craig worked out while social distancing at his usual offseason facility.
That day in March will remain as a pinpoint of the moment things shifted, even as baseball resumes. The word they use when looking back on that day from the fields, dugouts and clubhouses in Florida best describes those 24 hours for the entire sports world, not just baseball and its fans.
It was weird.
The United States passed 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 3. That day, MLB announced its internal task force to help navigate the ever-changing health scene, and it was suggested that direct contact should be avoided by eliminating fan autographs and team handshakes.
With numbers still on the rise on March 9, safety measures for teams both in Florida and Arizona were expanded. Clubhouse traffic was officially limited to players and essential personnel, and media requests were arranged outside with social distancing measures put into place.
“That week – probably about a week, it wasn’t even that long – [the Pirates] were kind of giving us the warnings [to] be responsible, be safe when fans were asking for autographs or just going out in public, just be aware,” Oliva said. “It almost didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. And then each game that went on it [it seemed to get more serious].”
With the precautions in place and the hope that playing outside versus in an enclosed arena would lessen the risk of going on as scheduled, the intent was for spring training games to continue with Opening Day still set for March 26, just two weeks later. That was on Monday.
It was 9:27 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 11 when word broke about Gobert’s condition. Just four minutes later the NBA had suspended its season, and although the rest of the night was fairly quiet in terms of other leagues following suit, the next day definitely wasn’t.
“We knew it was getting pretty serious whenever we saw that [the NBA was suspended],” Hayes said. “We knew something was about to happen.”
The news came in waves, hour by hour, on Thursday. MLB held a conference call with team owners over the lunch hour while 10 major league squads on the east coast were warming up to meet their 1 p.m. start times. Like four other stadiums across Florida, LECOM Park in Bradenton, spring training home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, was filling with fans.
The minutes ticked down toward the moment Joe Musgrove would take the mound for his start against Toronto. No postponement or cancellation was official yet – it wouldn’t be until just after 3 p.m. ET – but the inevitable hung in the air as the Twitter-verse was exploding.
“That Thursday came by and honestly, we found out from a tweet from one of the ESPN reporters – whoever it was – saying Cactus League and Grapefruit League games [were expected to] be canceled from [then] on,” Oliva said. “This is literally 10 minutes before we head out to the field.”
The Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and tacked on another in the third on Bryan Reynolds’ solo home run. With the lead, things started to shift both on and off the field.
At 3:10 p.m. ET, Hayes was in the dugout. It was around the fourth or fifth inning by his estimate, when the official MLB statement broke: Spring training was canceled effective at 4 p.m. ET, when all Cactus League games were set to begin, and Opening Day would be delayed at least two weeks.
“It was almost like a last game of the season type feeling,” Hayes said.
The Pirates’ starting lineup that day featured familiar faces of those who saw the field in Pittsburgh for most, if not all, of 2019. Two home runs by Toronto’s young stars, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, helped tie the game at three through five innings, and the Bucs went to their reserves.
Many members of the projected 2020 Tribe lineup were on the docket to receive playing time, including Oliva, who was expected to make the jump from Double-A to Triple-A for Opening Day in Indianapolis. He entered the game in the bottom of the sixth as a pinch runner for Jose Osuna and scored a run to cut Toronto’s lead to one.
Oliva, a 24-year-old California native, was selected by Pittsburgh in the seventh round of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft. He started off slow in Double-A Altoona in 2019 but rebounded by hitting .388 through 27 games in July. That rebound carried into the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .312 with 11 stolen bases in 26 contests to set himself up for a non-roster invitation to big-league camp.
His spring was also on the incline. He had hit .154 through seven games in February but was improving, raising his average to .214 by the time games were called. A 2-for-2 performance with his first spring training home run on March 6 and a hit in his only at-bat two days later kept him with the big-league squad through the last round of reassignments to minor league camp.
“During the game, nothing changed,” Oliva said. “I was kind of figuring stuff out the last couple of weeks, especially in the game, and was feeling really good. It was just kind of like, ‘Hey, if this kind of the last game then I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and if that’s it then that’s it.’”
Hayes joined the young outfielder on the field for the seventh inning as the Pirates trailed, 5-4.
Like Oliva, Hayes’ spring was about building on the success he had in the second half of 2019. The 23-year-old Rawlings MiLB Gold Glove-winning third baseman hit steady mid-.200s through most of the season with Indianapolis before erupting in August for a .327 average in 28 games.
He started off on that same note in late-February, hitting a double in his first spring at-bat after finishing tied for eighth in the International League with 30 two-baggers despite missing three weeks due to injury. Hayes went 5-for-12 in his first six games before slowing down to a .280 average.
While Oliva’s improvement over the course of the spring came from playing in-game, Hayes’ came in the cage and in work he put in off the field. He would stay back on games he didn’t play and watch video with Eckstein to work through his mechanics.
“I got to spend a bunch of time with him, just talking to him about the beginning of last year and things he saw that I wasn’t doing right,” Hayes said. “Just correcting that stuff… every now and then [I’ll] just send him some video and get some feedback from him.”
After a two-run Blue Jays eighth that was cut in half by a Cole Tucker two-out solo blast in the bottom half, Toronto would go on to win the game, 7-5.
Meanwhile, 3 ½ miles away at Pittsburgh’s minor league complex, Pirate City, the day was full of more questions than not. Minor League Baseball had released its statement at 3:51 p.m. ET to mirror what MLB said, but there was no official word on the status of minor league camp itself.
“[That morning] we woke up and went to the field, and it was just a really weird feeling,” Craig said. “There were people running around that you usually don’t see on the field, and [we’re] like ‘Okay, something’s about to happen, probably in the next day or so.’”
After spending the afternoon calling around to front office members who might know specifics, Craig finally got confirmation that the minor league side was also suspended.
The thought process on Thursday was that games would be shut down for a couple weeks but that practices and workouts at the facilities would continue. That too changed with the tides. On Friday, players in both camps were told they could go home or stay and wait it out. A couple days later, everyone was told to go home.
“[It was] just kind of like a ‘Wow, is this really happening?’ sort of thing,” Oliva said. “Everyone’s prepared, we’re at the end of spring training to basically start the season. The big-league guys are getting ready to have Opening Day shortly after, [I was expecting] to be in Triple-A so we had another week or two of spring training, and that all quickly changed. Quite the week to end spring training.”
Players dispersed all over the country, and some even further away than that. They watched as MLB’s would-be Opening Day in March passed by, and two weeks later when the minors were set to open.
“It was kind of weird and unfortunate for us,” Hayes said. “I mean, that’s what we work for all offseason, [but] at the same time it’s nice to come home and spend time with family, that extra time that we always lose out on during the season. It [was] kind of bittersweet not being able to go out there Opening Day because you always get those first-game butterflies.”
In those three spring/summer months that are usually dominated by baseball, Hayes took days off to spend time with his family, Oliva got to play catch with his dad and Craig visited his hometown in Johnson City, Tennessee in June for the first time in nine years.
“It’s been pretty crazy having, I guess you can say somewhat of a summer, [while] not playing ball,” Craig said. “I’d definitely rather be playing ball though, for sure.”
Now, they’ll get the chance. Hayes is in Pittsburgh at big-league camp after being added to the 40-man roster in the offseason, and Craig and Oliva are at PNG Field in Altoona, Pa., home of Pittsburgh’s Double-A affiliate, as part of a taxi squad.
From the original 60-man roster, 30 will be named to a big-league Opening Day roster, while three players will be carried on the road as part of a taxi squad and the rest will train in Altoona while they await a call up.
“I just want to be able to impact [the Pirates] as much as I can and show them that I have the ability and that I have the mental aspects of playing in the big leagues,” Craig said.
Like that Thursday in March, what is now the 2020 MLB season is going to be weird. The designated hitter has been implemented for both leagues, extra innings will start with a runner on second base, and there is no minor league season.
Now all there’s left to do is hope that every day moving forward is quiet, with no breaking news to report on the baseball front – and that we never reach the chaos of March 12 again.