FORT MYERS, FLA. – Hammond Stadium on Thursday was dressed up for a baseball game.
A batting cage covered home plate. Pitcher’s mounds in the bullpen were prepped for use. Byron Buxton, working his way back from shoulder surgery, threw a baseball around on the field early in the afternoon.
But there would be no game. The spread of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, is shutting down American sports, and Major League Baseball on Thursday joined the parade, halting play for at least the next month.
The final two weeks of spring training games won’t be played, and the start of the regular season will be delayed two weeks.
“We’re all trying to do our part to limit the public gatherings and the mass gatherings … so that’s been the focus over the last 24 hours,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations. “We’re all, on a human level, taking this very seriously.
“I am personally for me, my family and I’m sure just as every one of you are. That’s what our players are doing as well. They’re thinking about it on that level.”
MLB’s decision comes after the NBA, NHL and MLS suspended operations. The NCAA canceled the remainder of the winter and spring seasons.
“[We] have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular-season schedule,” MLB said in a statement. “MLB will announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time and will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.
“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our players, employees and fans.”
A somber Twins clubhouse learned of MLB’s decision during the second of two meetings held on Thursday. Players will take Friday off and return to the CenturyLink Sports Complex on Saturday, when they expect to learn more about how to proceed.
When asked about players in the clubhouse being worried, Twins closer Taylor Rogers said: “Maybe of just the unknown. I think everyone is really taking it in at the moment. So I think that’s why it’s best of us to take tomorrow and sleep on it and let it settle in, get your emotions together and then come back and go from there.”
The Twins’ 5 p.m. game on Thursday against the Orioles was canceled about two hours before first pitch. Early-arriving fans were turned away. Ushers were sent home. Twins players held a light workout, then went to their homes.
They have been asked to remain at their spring training residences for the next few days as MLB works with the players association to structure the next few weeks. One issue that must be worked out is if players will be paid if they agree to remain in camps during the dormant period. They could hold informal workouts in Fort Myers.
“As of right now, we obviously don’t know a whole lot,” Rogers said. “We’re going to take [Friday] off and come back Saturday, and reassess from there. I think that’s our best route. We’re not going to make any rash decisions or anything until then. I think as you guys know, when we talked [Wednesday] things were a lot different, so probably by the time we’re here on Saturday, things will be a lot different again.”
Minor league baseball also announced on Thursday that its various leagues will start later than scheduled.
The first two weeks of the Twins’ regular season consists of road series at Oakland and Seattle, followed by home series against Oakland and Cleveland. Plans were underway to move the series against the Mariners to another location, as the state of Washington is one of the areas hit the hardest by the virus.
Falvey said that no one with the club has been tested for the virus, but it has been suggested to players they stay away from large crowds while they are out and about.
“We don’t have anyone showing symptoms of anything,” Falvey said, “but we have been telling people, now, for the last couple of weeks, to pay attention to those types of symptoms. Nothing’s changed on that front.”
The fallout from the league’s decision will be wide-reaching, affecting multiple levels within every organization. Now stadiums will be empty on Opening Day, on March 26, with game day operations staff idle and concession workers without jobs.
Part of the ritual of spring training is the appearance of eagle-eyed scouts at games. But teams already had begun pulling them off the road as the virus spread.
Sean Johnson, the Twins scouting director, said preparations for the annual June draft already have been hampered, as some high school programs have canceled their seasons.
“We are going to keep our scouts off planes and away from airports,” Johnson said.
“So we are going to have to reconfigure our scouting coverage to some degree.”
And baseball’s next steps are to be determined.
“Our short-term here is that we met with our players and we want to make sure that they’re as aware of everything as we are and ensure that they’re all feeling comfortable in the short term here,” Falvey said. “Our plan here is to keep guys in camp over the next couple of days. As we understood it, that’s the agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association, to keep guys here as we learn more in the short term.
But nothing more than that at this time.”