SEATTLE – When my editors asked if I wanted to drive over to Seattle to cover the Mariners’ home-opening series this weekend, I honestly had mixed emotions. Of course, I jumped at the chance. But not without reservation.
It’s a different game in the days of COVID-19.
Everyone knows I’m a baseball guy. With the Spokane Indians – and all in Minor League Baseball – on hiatus due to this hideous pandemic that isn’t magically going away as some have predicted repeatedly, it would be a privilege to see and describe some professional baseball this summer.
And after covering the Washington Nationals for several years in a previous life, getting back into a big league press box is always an assignment I’m up for. I’ve had the opportunity to cover a few M’s games in person in the almost six years I’ve been at the paper now, but it’s usually once a year, if that.
And usually, columnist emeritus John Blanchette draws the opening-day assignment.
So the uniqueness of this year’s home opener and writing the column is a responsibility and an honor I don’t take lightly.
Yet, to be completely honest, it still feels weird covering baseball at all in the pandemic considering the staggering and exponentially increasing number of positive cases, debilitating complications – and yes, deaths – across the country … and baseball itself.
No sooner had I arrived at T-Mobile Park on Friday the news had broken that yet another MLB team, this time the St. Louis Cardinals, had an outbreak of positive tests, bringing to six the number of teams across the league shut down due to the virus.
Then Saturday, the Boston Red Sox announced pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez will miss the rest of the season with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, the result of his recent bout with COVID-19.
Along with those announcements came word that Commissioner Rob Manfred was contemplating pausing or shutting the league down unless the outbreaks are quelled.
The Miami Marlins – with more than half of the team in quarantine – had become Manfred’s worst-case scenario, with the most likely cause of the team’s outbreak coming from off-field socializing.
That, along with some local health officials decrying the players’ general lack of compliance with social distancing protocols, prompted Manfred to instruct all 30 teams to appoint a “compliance officer” whose responsibility is to monitor multimillion dollar players and middle-aged coaching staffs in the finer points of high-fiving, spitting and chewing sunflower seeds.
Yup. Each MLB team now has a babysitter. Or den mother. Or hall monitor. However you want to parse it.
Anyway, with a couple of underlying personal health issues, I’ve been extra careful since March when out in public so this would be the most adventurous activity I’d undertaken in months.
Weighing all of that against the awesome journalistic responsibility to describe a home opener where fans weren’t allowed in the park wasn’t a no-brainer.
Yet, the temptation was too much.
My journey began before I left Spokane (well, Coeur d’Alene actually).
After our credential application was approved, I had to download a health-screening app and fill out a questionnaire, affirming that I didn’t have any symptoms of COVID-19, nor had I knowingly had contact with anyone who had in the past 14 days.
Upon arrival at T-Mobile Park, a friendly medical staff took my temperature and again made me affirm that I was asymptomatic. I then found my seat in the press box, properly socially distanced from my closet neighbor, and set up shop.
From there, for a while it felt like a typical batting practice before the gates opened – except for a few face masks here and there on players, coaches and field staff.
Saturday, it was a different story. Almost all the Mariners players and coaches were masked up during pregame fielding and batting practice. Perhaps the commissioner’s warnings were being heeded.
Of course, everyone in the press box was appropriately masked, and remained so unless they were eating or drinking.
During batting practice, players were hitting and giving each other a hard time. Coaches were shouting instructions. Relief pitchers were shagging fly balls.
A collection of classic rock and modern pop played over the stadium speakers. The visiting team was stretching under a cloudless sky.
After the grounds crew got things set up (always a treat to watch), the Mariners played a prerecorded video of John Fogerty, wearing an M’s jersey set up at home plate at a darkened T-Mobile Park, performing a melancholy version of his classic “Centerfield” on the jumbo screen.
It was at that time the players entered the dugout and for the first time, things felt … weird.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls …” came the announcement from the public address announcer, to no one in the stands, and he went through the traditional introduction of the players from both teams.
Every media member in the press box took a cellphone photo to commemorate the strangeness.
Stranger still was the loud fake cheering pumped in after each Mariners player was introduced.
The Black Lives Matter message was solemn, and unlike at other opening day ceremonies, no players took a knee during the prerecorded national anthem – but veteran Mariners utility player Dee Gordon held his right fist aloft.
Following the anthem, the video scoreboard played a presentation about the Players Alliance initiative, and Gordon and several teammates took a knee, fists aloft once again, down the right-field line while it played.
Even though the M’s had already played seven road games, the home opener is normally the time when the home crowd finally acknowledges that baseball is back, welcoming the game back with open arms and hearty cheers.
Only this time, those fans had to make do sitting on their couch or deck or backyard, content on watching on Root Sports.
After that, it was time for baseball.
The Mariners game staff did a great job placing 8,000 cardboard cutouts, the “Seat Fleet,” throughout the ballpark, and the fake crowd noise was appropriately louder when the Mariners had runners in scoring position or made a nifty play in the field.
And it helped that M’s starter Taijuan Walker tossed a gem and led the home team to victory on opening day.
I suppose it was as close to the real thing as possible under the circumstances.
We can hope the outbreaks we’ve seen across the game subside and the players use better judgment and fully buy in to the program.
We can hope this season gets a chance to play itself out to completion.
We can hope the Mariners’ blend of youngsters finds its way sooner rather than later, and their veterans can contribute as they have in the past.
It’s always good to have hope on opening day. This year, though, that hope is dependent on more than just what’s happening between the lines.