Drayer: Mariners endured hard road to opening day because they want to play
A year ago, a 60-game Mariners season would be about as unfathomable as an opening day without fans. Yet here we are, and we have both.
With everything that has happened in our world, the country and the very sport itself, a season has been in doubt right up to the moment where the Nationals and Yankees took the field in Washington, D.C. for the first scheduled game of the regular season Thursday.
It will be a very short and different season, but the Mariners are grateful for the opportunity to play ball.
“I didn’t know that we would get to this point quite frankly,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “When this whole thing started, we all got together with all of the testing and everything we would have to overcome to get to this day. I questioned whether it could happen or not but a testament to our players, the people around MLB to put the protocols in place to make this happen.”
Sitting high atop the field in the press box, the closest reporters can get to the players and “Tier 1” members, we saw so many unfamiliar sights during Mariners Summer Camp at T-Mobile Park.
Players entering and exiting the field in street clothes from the outfield on their way back to the team hotel across the street where many of the 60-man player pool were housed. Masks on players and staff on the field. Mariners coming out of the visiting clubhouse and dugout. Mariners facing Mariners in daily intrasquad games. The team’s traveling secretary diving in left field for a fly ball in one of those intrasquad games. The masked farm director calling balls and strikes from behind the pitcher. Team meetings and meals in the stands. Reminders to separate when the reality escaped them for moments and they ventured too close to teammates around the batting cage. These were just the changes we could see.
What we couldn’t see were the two temperature checks each player had to self-administer before they left for the ballpark, the distanced lines they would have to stand in to undergo testing and screening when they arrived. Clubhouses with just 15 players in them at a time, training rooms with just four. One player commented that he had yet to have the opportunity to talk to half of his teammates and hoped to be able to do so on the field once intrasquad games began. Schedules that must be followed for absolutely everything, the freedoms to take work as they needed gone.
The players’ routines greatly altered as were a lot of the freedom and joys they would usually encounter in downtime in and around the clubhouse. That is not part of the pandemic schedule, sacrificed as part of the price to be paid if they wanted to play ball, the motivating factor that brought them to the field each day.
This was my overwhelming takeaway from Day 1 to the final intrasquad game: these Mariners want to play. The inconveniences and losing so much of the upside of being a pro ball player just don’t matter. They’ve reconciled the risks. One look at them on the field on the first day and there was no question in my mind. These players looked remarkably ready and you don’t stay that ready without a tremendous amount of work, work that was put in with no guarantees that they would be back this year and work that little resembled for many what they would be able to do in a normal offseason due to coronavirus restrictions.
Surprising to some perhaps, but not to Kyle Seager, a veteran who hardly needs the prorated salary he will receive this year and is under contract through the 2021 season.
“Ultimately it’s our job,” he said. “But bigger than that it’s all of our dream. Everybody here grew up wanting to play baseball. You are not at this point if you didn’t grow up thinking that. I think you realize how precious it is, I think as players we understand that we have a very short window and then something like this happens and wow. You just knocked out 2/3 of a season. Gone.”
If there was a moment of “What the heck am I doing out here?” for Seager, who donned a mask nearly the entire time he was on the field, he didn’t show it. Instead we saw him and double-play partner J.P. Crawford playfully running football plays and trash talking each other as they ran to their positions each inning. Maybe you’ve seen them do this before in games – you know, games that count with opposing players on the other side and fans in the stands – but they did this each day with empty stands, piped in crowd noise and teammate opponents. These were just small moments that made the baseball feel real and showed that playing is what mattered to this group.
Another veteran, new dad Dee Gordon, said not playing was never given a second thought.
“It was automatic,” Gordon said. “My decision to play baseball never wavered at all. I love this game too much, I’m having too much fun and I would never want to miss out on the opportunity to be in the majors.”
Veterans not taking any moment in the big leagues for granted a surprise perhaps. Young players, however, it’s easy to understand the opportunity they see in front of them. Still the appreciation could be heard in Justus Sheffield’s voice when he talked about his upcoming first opening day. There will be some festivities but no fans and sadly no families in attendance, but the day remains special no matter what the conditions are.
“It means the world,” said Sheffield, his voice quieting. “Coming up in the minor leagues, that’s what your goal is, to make the big league club, to break camp. It just means everything, a lot of hard work going into it and finally starting to show. I’m extremely grateful for it.”
Baseball has changed because the world has changed, and while the Mariners have sought to make the best of it these past three weeks, one has to wonder how this will hit the players when it all becomes real Friday evening in Houston. It’s something opening day starter and Seattle resident Marco Gonzales has considered.
On one hand, Gonzales needs to compartmentalize in order to perform, to compete to the best of his ability. On the other hand, he knows that door cannot be fully shut. Those in the game have fought to get to this spot and in the end the reward may be measured in more than wins and losses.
“There is a part of me that is there, emotional, invested,” Gonzales said. “This year has been complicated, it’s been difficult, not just for us, for a lot of front-line health care workers. For first responders and for what’s happening in our society with a lot of injustices going on. To be able to step on the field and play a game relieves a lot of that pressure, a lot of that build up for us. For this to be a normal game will be very, very relieving, I hope.”