MLB: When baseball returns, watch the passion swell, say managers

PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - MARCH 08: Manager Luis Rojas #19 of the New York Mets before a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros at Clover Park on March 8, 2020 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Mets defeated the Astros 3-1. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - MARCH 08: Manager Luis Rojas #19 of the New York Mets before a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros at Clover Park on March 8, 2020 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Mets defeated the Astros 3-1. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

Several managers say losing the game, for the time being, will remind players and fans alike of their passion for it when it returns.

Asked how the coronavirus pandemic’s shutdown of baseball would impact the game ultimately, by ESPN’s Marly Rivera, New York Mets manager Luis Rojas believes the core passion players and fans alike have will revive the patient. It’s “going to be higher than ever because we miss it so much, including the fans,” Rojas says. “I think that passion is going to be higher than ever.”

Rojas isn’t even close to being the only major league manager who thinks so. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who had merely to start bringing his team back from 2019 described politely as a disaster before the pandemic, thinks appreciating the game will deepen when it’s able to return.

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“The fact that we’re missing the game so much, you’re going to see more of the little kids come out in all of us,” Shelton tells Rivera. “I think you’re going to see some pure excitement for being back on the field, and maybe that’s something that maybe we all need a refresher every once in a while. You definitely don’t want anything of this magnitude to create that, but any time you’re away from the game, and then you come back to it, you have a more of an appreciation for it.”

“Baseball has been stripped from our lives right now, and it’s been hard dealing without it,” says Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, perhaps offering the understatement of the newborn week. “I think we understand how important our industry is to the general public because a lot of people are missing the game as well. I think just having an appreciation for what we do every day and not take it for granted because it can be taken away in a moment.”

Much like the country that calls the game its own, the coronavirus caught baseball flatfoot. Unlike much of the country’s leadership, who denied until it was undeniable, baseball and other sports didn’t wait for a presidential or Congressional awakening, or an explosion of infection, to shut down and heed what sound medical and epidemiological information was available to heed.

But the men who manage the teams and the games know too well what their jobs mean to a country that’s been to hell and back several times in its still young history and turned to the game for hope and for psychic healing.

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez understands. When baseball returned after its hiatus after the 9/11 atrocity, Martinez was an Atlanta Brave playing the last of his sixteen major league seasons. His Braves finished first in the 2001 National League East, which was still their custom at the time. (Telling his wife they’d clinched yet again, Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux heard her one-word reply: “Shocker.”) But there was one loss they didn’t mind incurring.

That was the day they played the Mets, on day one of baseball’s return to New York, but with the Braves coming in on a 1-3 stretch since they returned to play while the Mets came home after sweeping three from the Pirates. Martinez drew a pinch-hit walk in the top of the eighth, after Brian Jordan smacked an RBI double to break a one-all tie, then stayed in the game at first base.

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“The toughest thing I have been involved in within a baseball season was 9/11, how everything shut down,” says Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi, a Chicago Cubs catcher for the second tour of his playing career in 2001. “There was a huge fear in our country, and huge sadness because of what happened. But we weren’t out long.”

Martinez stood at first when Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo after Alfonso drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the eighth and came out for pinch-runner Desi Relaford, with Hall of Famer Mike Piazza checking in at the plate against Braves reliever Steve Karsay. Then Piazza blew the lid off New York’s and maybe the country’s post-9/11 emotions by sending Karsay’s 0-1 fastball far enough over Shea Stadium’s left-center field fence that it banged off the second level of a television camera’s scaffold.

“We were winning that game, and all of a sudden Piazza hits the home run — and it was almost a sigh of relief for everybody,” Martinez tells Rivera. “It really was. That moment, watching the ball go over the fence . . . I know we’re all so competitive and we all want to win, but in that particular moment for me, it was like, ‘You know what, this is what the game’s all about. Win or lose, this is what the game is all about.’ Watching and listening to the fans stand up and cheer like they did, it was phenomenal.”

“It felt like you, as an entertainer, you were doing your part to help people get back to normal. I thought baseball did a good job of that in 2001,” says Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who played on that year’s World Series-winning. “And I hope and aspire to for us to serve the same role this time. Hopefully, when we come back and take the field we can make some great memories for people, that’s the goal.”

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Girardi says the hardest part today is that, unlike even the 9/11 aftermath, baseball and its home country have no concrete date from which to work, cope, and endure. “And none of us have ever experienced anything like this,” he continues, “where the things that you did on an everyday basis are taken away from you.”

A little over a century ago the Spanish flu smashed into the world and—as 675,000 Americans and 50 million around the world succumbed and died in due course—baseball cut its season by a month and thus did the World Series end on (wait for it) September 11, 1918. Just before that flu really exploded in the United States.

“Our job right now,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell almost a fortnight ago, “is to minimize the casualties, and canceling sports events is a basic element.”

"But until proved otherwise, I’m taking the position (for my emotional health) that the science of 2020 can beat the medicine of 1918 by quite a bit when it comes to restoring a semblance of normal daily life. Baseball will be back. For now, the season has been pushed back at least eight weeks, and that probably will increase. But when the game does return, like many ordinary wonderful things, it suddenly will seem like an extraordinarily wonderful thing."

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“We focus on controlling what we can control and staying informed,” says Rojas. For himself and his fellow managers, it means staying in touch with players and their families while re-connecting or re-fortifying the connections within their own families.

They know they’re involved in a singular profession brought to a halt by a singular virus, and that their country and the world are as scared now as in 1918. But they also know that when the virus is brought under control, at last, the number one urge for America will be returning to something approaching normalcy again. (And, trying to figure out how the hell a respiratory invader provoked record runs on and shortages of . . . toilet paper.)

We’ve always been a hardy lot, we Americans of numerous origins. We’ve stood up on our hind legs and fought back against numerous challenges from the microbial to the martial and back. We’ve beaten illness and ill behavior alike, whatever the origins of either. When we needed it, baseball was there to give us room to heal.

Right now we’re trying to beat illness and ill-behavior if you factor the human dregs to whom a pandemic means a good old fashioned price gouge. We’re also pretty virtuoso at making the best of a situation about which “unnerving” is a drastic understatement. When you see people giving other people the simplest kindnesses in the middle of an anything-but-simple pandemic, you remember that we humans aren’t the worst you can meet.

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Who’ll be the next Mike Piazza? We’ll meet him soon enough. Or, for all we know, there’s a pitcher out there somewhere who’ll jolt baseball and the country, if not the world, to take the mound on Day One of baseball’s return and spin himself and his team a no-hitter. That guy could be Walker Buehler, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Jack Flaherty, Sonny Gray, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Justin Verlander.

Remember Andjuar’s Law. (Named for Joaquin Andujar, pitcher/flake/time bomb, who coined it.) “In baseball, there’s just one word: you never know.”

But maybe it doesn’t have to require feats like Piazza, either. Maybe it’ll just be a hearty round of simple, ordinary, win-or-lose baseball games, however, they decide to configure whatever season will remain to play. Normalcy would be more than sufficient. A blow-the-lid-off late-game two-run homer or a take-that! no-hitter would be gravy.

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On that day, we’re going to explode for the sheer joy of knowing that this, too, has passed. Knowing that just as the blood of our parents and grandparents ran strong through world wars, depression, diseases, and disasters, our blood—and baseball’s—ran strong enough this time, too.