Image credit: Bud Black (Photo by Kiyoshi Mia/Getty Images)
When Rockies manager Bud Black addressed his team for the final time before they departed spring training in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he left his players with a simple message.
“Go back home (and) stay sharp, because you don’t know when it’s coming back,” Black said. “Don’t over-train, but do it in a practical way knowing that you’re going to have probably at least three weeks to get ready for a season now.
“Our message is sort of, ‘Do what you would do in a normal January to get ready for a February spring training start . . . Turn the clock back and relive January.’ ”
Black, 62, can speak from firsthand experience.
Black was an active player in 1995, the last time spring training was altered and the start of the season delayed. Then a 37-year-old lefthander about to sign with the Indians, Black and hundreds of other players were in the same position as their peers now: waiting at home, unsure when they will be called back to spring training or when Opening Day will actually take place.
Major League Baseball announced on March 16 that the 2020 season will not start until at least mid-May following the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that no gatherings of more than 50 people be held for eight weeks as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Spring training games were canceled March 12 and players have largely been told to return home, though some remain at spring training sites and are working out individually.
It is the first time spring training has been altered and the start of the season delayed since 1995, when the players’ strike that began in August 1994 continued into the spring.
For players, both then and now, the delays create the challenge of having to be ready to play without knowing when games will actually begin.
“You do all your work at home,” Black said. “I was playing catch with Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris and Randy Ready at San Dieguito Academy (a local high school in northern San Diego County). High school catchers were catching our bullpen sessions. Some of the position players were able to hit on the field prior to the high school practice. I’m sure that was going on across the country.”
The events of 1995 provide hints to what may lay ahead once baseball resumes. Back then spring training was shortened to three weeks. Rosters were expanded by three additional players, to 28, for the first three weeks of the season, in part because pitchers were not fully built up during the abbreviated spring training. The season was ultimately shortened to 144 games and the lost games were not made up.
On a larger scale, the delay in 1995 cost some players valuable time in the major leagues, both from the standpoints of service time and getting established as major leaguers.
Jeromy Burnitz played 131 games for the Mets the previous two seasons and was traded to the Indians prior to 1995. With the shortened spring training, the then-25-year-old outfielder didn’t have enough time to make much of an impression on his new team and spent all but nine games that year in Triple-A.
“It cost me time, for sure,” Burnitz said. “For me personally, at that point it wasn’t a huge deal physically. I kind of kept myself ready baseball-wise, always . . . It was more the uncertainty at that time and that situation, I figured it was going to cost me major league time, which in the end it kind of did. That was probably my only frustration with it. Just that you’re set back with what went down and the situation in general.”
For Black, it’s starting pitchers who will struggle the most if baseball returns with an abbreviated three-week spring training, as he expects.
“I think to be truly ready, (you need) the traditional six weeks and that buildup,” he said. “In all honesty the length of spring training for me is a direct correlation of what starting pitchers need to be fully ready mentally and physically. That was cut in half. For position players it’s not as important. They can get ready in three weeks and have no problem.”
The other factor, veterans of the 1995 season recall, is teams will have to be extra careful watching for injuries. Burnitz spent his time training at an indoor tennis court in New York and made sure he was doing baseball activities during the delay, as opposed to just lifting weights or using the time off as downtime.
“My advice with all baseball guys is throw the ball hard, swing the bat hard and run hard,” he said. “I played with these dudes who came back super in shape, big muscles and all that. Those dudes dropped like flies. First time they had to swing hard in a game, they pulled their ribcage.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker was another who had to make do with unusual workout arrangements. He was an active player during both the 1972 players’ strike that canceled the first week and a half of the season and the 1981 strike that interrupted the middle of the season. His tenure as a manager also included the 1994-95 seasons with the Giants.
“In 1981 . . . we were all on our own and I continued to work out,” Baker said. “I swam a lot, I worked out every day. I just knew that baseball was going to return. I was playing Wiffle ball with my nephew, just anything I could do to stay in shape.”
“These are some of the things I can call upon. Baseball will be back. (The layoff is) going to be boring, but I think it’s a must that you stay in shape and keep your mind ready to come back to baseball at some point in time.”
With starting pitchers not likely to be built up at the start, heightened injury concerns and an unknown number of games to be played, the 2020 season will be unlike any other in Major League Baseball’s long history.
For the veterans of delayed seasons past, it’s just going to come down to how well today’s players can manage their minds and bodies.
“The strength of players, really, a lot of it is their mentality,” Black said. “That’s part of what makes them big leaguers. Their mentality and their mental capacity.”