Gregor Chisholm: Baseball takes a back seat on Blue Jays’ opening day but the time for optimism is coming
|Toronto Star 25 Mar 2020 at 19:37|
The impact the deadly coronavirus has made on our society will become even more apparent to sports fans on Thursday afternoon when stadiums across North America remain dormant on what should have been baseball’s big moment.
Opening days are all about optimism. It’s the only time in the season all teams find themselves on equal footing. For at least a few hours, fans fantasize about this being the year everything comes together. The possibilities seem endless. The world could use that mindset more than ever right now, but it won’t be getting it from the diamond.
The Blue Jays had March 26 circled on the calendar for months. This was going to be the moment Toronto unveiled its biggest free-agent acquisition — at least in terms of dollars — in franchise history. A diminished Boston team, fresh off an off-season fire sale, was positioned to become Hyun-Jin Ryu’s first victim. After a few years of rebuilding, the organization had something to be proud of again. That seemed to be important, before the spread of COVID-19.
The severity of the global pandemic appears to be growing by the day. Hospitals have been pushed to their limits and businesses shut down, millions of people are facing uncertain employment. Baseball has become an afterthought to most people, though those in the industry must find a way to carry on behind the scenes.
“I love sport, I love baseball, everything about it, and it’s been a huge part of my daily existence,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said during a conference call Wednesday morning. “But for now, what we’re focused on is hopefully having a significant impact on others, by leading by example, demonstrating respect and completely following through on the recommended guidelines.
“I feel we have a responsibility to society, and I would hope that we can impact others by making smart decisions in the coming weeks. And, believe me, we can’t wait for the moment that games return, but for now there really are no shortcuts.”
That’s the reality the Blue Jays and MLB currently face. The league and its players association are negotiating how to deal with an abbreviated schedule or the possibility of a cancelled season. Recent reports suggested the sides were optimistic about starting the year in May or June. Everyone involved continues to insist a season will be played, but no one really knows.
So, as the health crisis unfolds, players and team officials are doing the same things everyone else is. They are staying at home, practising social distancing and waiting word on the next steps. Simulated games and live batting practices aren’t possible, but pitchers are throwing, and hitters are getting work in, when and where they can.
One thing the Jays have started to do in recent days is increase the amount of work being done through Zoom video conferencing. Groups of anywhere from five to 20 players, coaches, front office executives and analysts meet online to talk about everything from studying video and date to pitch recommendations and workout routines.
The goal is to simulate conversations that would normally take place around the batting cage or clubhouse. The action might have stopped, but the hope is some of the learning will continue.
“We’re brainstorming about it, as opposed to just executing immediately on creative ideas,” said Atkins, who was speaking from home while in self-isolation after returning from Florida earlier this month. “We’re sharing ideas. We’re creating different communications forums, whether (they are) Zoom calls or Slack lines … different forums for us to have creative ideas and thoughts.”
The Blue Jays front office often gets mocked for the perceived corporate language it uses with the media. Terms like process and collaboration find their way into almost every scrum. The organization typically goes to great lengths to explain advances made in communication and the interconnectivity between departments.
In a normal year, most of that dialogue gets brushed aside as being a lot of talk. Wins and promising prospects matter more than anything else to the fan base, everything else is just lip service. But there was an importance to be the work being done behind the scenes. Nobody in professional sports planned for a pandemic. Everyone was caught off-guard by the severity and the speed in which the virus spread. Yet having this type of infrastructure in place has given the Blue Jays some options for charting a path through the layoff.
Toronto currently has 41 employees listed in its high-performance department and 24 staff members in player development. That’s 65 people on the payroll before factoring in minor-league coaches and various levels of scouts, which would more than double the list of employees. With no games to play, finances eventually might become an issue, but right now there is no shortage of resources.
That should help the Jays identify areas for an improvement at a time when it otherwise seems impossible. It’s not much, but at least it’s something. We’re all searching for ways to be productive while remaining safe during these troubling times.
“There are more important things we are facing than playing our game today, however, and so I want to encourage you to stay home and be healthy!” shortstop Bo Bichette tweeted earlier this week.
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“A couple of teammates and I are sticking together and quarantining as a small group while we find ways to train in a gym and batting cage that we are blessed to have as our own right now. We are lucky to have plenty to do alone but outside here, and we plan to be ready the second we are told we can get back to Dunedin!”
There’s no baseball to be played on Thursday but it will be back, and the optimism every fan can experience on opening day will return along with it. Until then, the work behind the scenes continues, just in different ways than it ever has before.