BY Art Thiel 06:26PM 07/03/2020

Thiel: A spit-free first day of ‘pandemia ball’ is in

The first summer camp day of MLB’s return went spitless in Seattle, far as anyone could tell. But since 15 to 20 Mariners didn’t show, hold off the sanitary celebration.

Mariners manager Scott Servais conducts a socially distanced team meeting in the grandstand at T-Mobile Park. / Art Thiel, Sporspress Northwest

Summer camp was as stilted as spring training was casual. Nobody wanted to catch viral cooties, but what’s a batting cage for but to hang out, shoulder to shoulder? How can you tell if your clubhouse prank worked if you can’t see a whole face full of anguish? And where’s the party if there’s no condo pool?

All of these basics of ball life in Peoria for the Mariners were absent Friday in Seattle. The first day of the new world went off at T-ball Park almost mysteriously.

“It takes awhile to recognize some of them in the clubhouse with their masks on,” said manager Scott Servais, describing the little oddities in the historic first day of MLB’s attempt to dip and duck a pandemic.

Then there’s whole annoying public-health scrutiny thing.

“I waited for 15 minutes in line to get my temperature taken (outside the park) before I even (returned to) my car,” he said. “I wanted to get into my day, and it’s just like . . . slow down, do the right thing here.”

Tougher to break than iron is a habit, rookie 1B Evan White was suggesting.

“The whole (no-)spitting thing and (not) licking your fingers,” he said of what surprised him most when he first read the new safety rules on behavior. “Playing first base, I want to be able to have a grip on the ball. And spitting is something I’ve done for my entire baseball life. So it’s definitely gonna take some getting used to.”

The Mariners’ ace, Marco Gonzales, mentioned a more menacing, but subtle, consequence: The requirement for ballplayers to think.

“That’s really probably the hardest part,” he said, “because we’re so used to just kind of putting our heads down and going through our day. We’re all capable of following all the protocols; I think there’s just differences where you need to take a second to analyze (if) you’re wearing a mask (and if) you’re socially distancing.

“There’s just gonna be times throughout the day where we need to take a second and remember what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Hard to know which is tougher on a ballplayer: Thinking or not spitting. Friday, it was all they could do to show up. Many didn’t.

Servais estimated 15 to 20 of the 60 players players due in camp were not participating, either because their coronavirus test results had yet to come back, or they were positive for covid-19.

Citing federal health-privacy rules, MLB and the players union won’t allow diclosure of the players who are sick or in quarantine, although players can offer up the news.

Nationally, 31 players and seven staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during intake for the resumption of training, a rate of 1.2%, said a joint statement Friday from MLB and the union. The positive tests occurred among 19 of the 30 teams,  according to results from a Utah lab contracted to administer the tests on 3,185 samples so far in the first week.

Servais had a message for any player inclined to whine about the hassles: Get over it.

“It’s gonna be uncomfortable,” he said. “You have to be OK with the new normal.  You’ve got to accept it. You’ve got to own it going in . . . Strong messaging to our players and staff about how serious we have to take the protocols. You don’t want to be the player or coach that has brought something in.

“It’s not just adhering to the protocols here when we get into the ballpark, but what goes on away from the ballpark. We’ve got to really pay close attention to it.”

Servais echoed what many in baseball have been saying about the shock of the disruption.

“The biggest thing for me was a month into the shutdown, it hit me how much I have taken for granted,” he said. “As you get rolling along in your seasons, it becomes the norm. Putting on a uniform, working with young players in a competitive situation. I quickly realized how much I missed that.”

Servais, White and Gonzales were all interviewed via Zoom, the new tool of the altered reality. Media is forbidden from the field and clubhouses for the season. So Friday, all were interviewed from three separate locations to masked-up media types in the press box, scattered well apart from one another and the media-relations staff.

It had all the warmth and collegiality of an afternoon at DMV license renewal time.

Nevertheless, Servais offered up some amusement when he seemed, inadvertently, to channel Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.

Talking about the competitive prospects for a team largely of kids and no-name veterans that will operate in an intense 60-game regular season with only three weeks of summer camp, Servais said, “We know that 10 teams are going to make the playoffs and there’s going to be two or three teams we aren’t expecting, because the season is so short, anything can happen.

“Can we stay healthy? Can our young guys step forward a little quicker than we expected? Why not? Why not us?”

The latter is one of Wilson’s many bromides. It has been useful to him. Servais is certainly welcome to steal from the best, however preposterous the odds of success.

Then again, no one figured in February’s spring training that any of us would have found ourselves in the positions we discovered Friday. If the world Servais took for granted is suddenly 52-card pick-up, there’s no epidemiological study to suggest his first four cards retrieved can’t be aces.


  • I do not see how this is going to work. What happens if one player tests positive? Contact tracing then leads to another positive test and then what? How many positives are acceptable before pulling the plug? What if a player ends up hospitalized? The public relations nightmare is the least of the problems. Young, healthy people are suffering long lingering effects, unknown complications later on are a possibility, death is obviously an outcome no one wants to see anyone suffer.

    Does the league react the same if it is Mike Trout, Aaron Judge or Justin Verlander as opposed to a reserve outfielder or little used relief pitcher?

    I just don’t see this lasting beyond two to three weeks. Because science and the virus have their own schedule. No amount of magical, hopeful thinking can change that.

    • art thiel

      Good questions. MLB deliberately has avoided outlining a doomsday sequence publicly, although they have to have discussed scenarios. They don’t want to because, as you say, the virus has no schedule. They just have to let it play out, and perhaps let the union make the move to call off the season so the blood is not on their hands.

      And players who are sufficiently scared and financially secure can opt out, as did the Dodgers’ David Price.

    • Husky73

      Seven NBA teams have now closed down their practice facilities.

  • Husky73

    Freddie Freeman is ill. David Price and Ryan Zimmerman say no-go. Mike Trout and Buster Posey are hedging. There will be more who opt out. Just go home, be safe and show up again in February.

    • James

      COVID-19 will either be raging in the US next February, or the country will be shut down again to stop it. Too soon for a vaccine to be available, and too soon for President Biden to fix Trump’s incompetence.

      • art thiel

        I cannot counter your forecasts.

      • Jonathan M Perez

        Presuming Biden wins I have a lot more confidence he will make a tough decision to completely shut the country down. The Bunker Boy cannot be counted on to provide any type of leadership.

        • Husky73

          I wish that I shared your presumption.

    • art thiel

      Every day will edge closer to the edge. (Why English is hard: same word as verb and noun in the same sentence.)

      • Husky73

        Or, a proper name…David Howell Evans…The Edge.

  • Tman

    Here we go again with a laugh every paragraph.
    You are so much fun when you’re on your game.
    Thanks Mr Thiel. Happy 4th of July!

    • art thiel

      Thanks Tman.

  • jafabian

    You get a team to lose one of its top position players and 1 or 2 of its top pitchers and it’s out of the running. You can bet they’ll cry foul. Baseball really needs to have a COVID-19 czar, possibly each team should, to ensure that the teams follow recommended protocol when it comes to health and safety of the players. I greatly respect Felix and David Price opting out of the season for those reasons. I didn’t like Dipoto saying that players need to just get out and play. In fact I’ve yet to see any sports executive say “safety first.” Imagine that.

    • art thiel

      I think most teams have had some official say, “safety first,” but they don’t want to dwell on it. You’re right about Dipoto — it was a reckless statement. As much pressure as he was already under for the step-back plan, the virus has thrown him an unhittable curve.

      • jafabian

        Dipoto did seem weary and frustrated when he said it but he’s yet to recant his statement to my knowledge or explain it. Garth Lagerwey of the Sounders made a similar one as well. Sure, they have the right to make an income but that won’t mean anything if you’re fighting for your life. This pandemic could be under control if people would do three simple, low cost things: wear a mask, stay home and if you must go out be socially distant. Instead America is doing the opposite. Groups gathering in areas where the pandemic is at its strongest is madness.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Granted, the topic here is baseball, but all other sports are in the same predicament. In any case, the Deflatriots will be guaranteed to skirt whatever rules exist. Metaphysical certitude exists here.