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Goold: From Munoz bolting to camps closing, eight days in Jupiter as baseball came to a stop

Goold: From Munoz bolting to camps closing, eight days in Jupiter as baseball came to a stop

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Cardinals Spring Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong leaves the team's spring training baseball clubhouse with a box and bats, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. Major League Baseball has delayed the start of its season by at least two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak as well as suspended the rest of its spring training game schedule. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

JUPITER, Fla. — When I had the room to myself, I quickly checked my phone for an update from the game that could not possibly be starting on time a few blocks away.

When the dentist returned, I closed my eyes, as requested.

Right in the middle of last spring training I sneaked away from the ballpark for an afternoon to have a root canal, and on March 12, 2020, I was scheduled for the finishing checkup. That is where I was the morning after the NBA and the NHL stopped their seasons, and where I still was as the clock ticked toward the first pitch of the Cardinals-Marlins game at Roger Dean Stadium. The sports world was coming to a halt as a pandemic descended, but a baseball game was still going to be played at the Dean. Or was it?

I kept checking my phone for a reply to texts, for an email, for some official announcement of the game’s cancellation. And it never came. Not until I was watching it, sharing that uncertain feeling with dozens of other people about being there at all.

That day, one year ago Friday, brought an end to spring training and eventually all baseball activities for months. It was, however, the climax in a week of rolling news that came like a cascade leading to this conclusion. It was confusing. It was chaotic. It was unnerving.

We know so much more now than we did then.

So many people have lost so much more now than we could comprehend back then.

It felt like a stretch of time to remember, so I scribbled notes in a journal, and looking back now, 12 months later, it is remarkable how much things changed in eight short days before the long, unsettling months ahead …

March 7, 2020 – A Saturday

Before fielding the first question about what we all thought was the most significant news of the day, John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, spent 2 ½ minutes answering questions about hygiene and the virus. He met that morning with the club to discuss new practices and suggestions due to Florida declaring a public health emergency as COVID-19 stretched across the globe and into the United States. 

The Cardinals encouraged players to pre-sign baseballs and toss them to fans. Fist bumps were the new handshake. Mozeliak, who habitually kept hand sanitizer nearby, had signs hung around the facility to remind everyone to wash their hands.

Now hand sanitizer was readily available around the clubhouse.

Five days earlier, I wrote about how the Cardinals trip to London to face the Cubs might be in jeopardy. Mozeliak said the team and MLB were “staying on top of this.”

Today, limit contact with fans.

Tomorrow, who knows?

Oh, and the headline news that day: Cardinals released utility infielder Yairo Munoz after he failed to report to camp or meet with a team doctor to have his hamstring injury evaluated. Instead of going on the major-league injured list, Munoz, frustrated by his role and non-responsive to messages from the team or manager, bolted for home. Cardinals officials, assured he was safe, still expressed concern for how abruptly he ghosted the team. 

March 8, 2020 – A Sunday

Word began to spread the next step after hand-washing for professional sports would be closing the clubhouse/dressing rooms to the media. This is met with the expected quick-draw commentary on social media and two-pronged criticism from reporters and fans. Reporters point out how access is a key part of telling stories and cultivating sources for those stories. Any policy that protected health made absolute sense, but this one felt incomplete as it did not reduce the possibility of players, coaches, officials, or, yes, reporters being in large groups of random people away from the ballpark. Worse, in some corners, as one player articulated, it presented reporters as the ones carrying the virus, the ones who wouldn’t be careful. Some fans echoed that sentiment and still others wondered why reporters had access to the clubhouse anyway?

It is, candidly, a fair question.

It’s for stories like this one.

One of the last interviews I did in the Cardinals clubhouse was this day, sitting beside Yadier Molina near his locker for a conversation. We talked about how he’s shared so much of his career with Adam Wainwright, how they've become "brothers." At one point, Molina motions toward Wainwright’s locker on the other side of the clubhouse.

“When I grow up, I want to be like him,” he says, grinning.

That is a sentiment shared in the room, not Zoom.

March 9, 2020 – A Monday

The Cardinals were in Fort Myers, Fla., and Kwang Hyun Kim had just breezed through the Minnesota Twins top lineup shortly before we’re alerted to a new policy. Clubhouses closed to the media – and others, such as non-essential support personnel. The shutout staked Kim’s claim to a spot in the rotation. Daniel Ponce de Leon pitched well to stay in the mix for a big-league role, and at the end of the game came the newsy twist. Alex Reyes handled the ninth inning of the shutout – a sure sign of his new spot on the depth chart and the beginning of a season he’ll end as closer. We talked to him about that in the clubhouse.

It will be the last time I do that for a long time, at least until after the next time we write about Reyes being shifted to reliever.

March 10, 2020 – A Tuesday

Outside the clubhouse and unsure where or how far away to stand, Jack Flaherty told reporters after his start vs. Boston that he felt game-ready. He had one more scheduled start before opening day and he described himself as primed, full-strength. Left unsaid was the likelihood he would start the year as one of the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award in preseason predictions.

On the drive back from Fort Myers to Jupiter across the heart of the Florida peninsula and past the sugar cane fields made famous by NFL players who grew up there, Ben Frederickson and I listened to the news.

The Ivy League cancelled its tournaments.

March 11, 2020 – A Wednesday

I took a copy of “Lord of the Flies” to finish rereading and a stack of postcards to the local brewery, Civil Society, and intended to read and write with the NBA game on the background. There was only an empty court on the screen. The Cincinnati Reds put out a statement about opening day against the Cardinals that was old almost as soon as it hit Twitter. The club said they would work with officials to assure the traditional parade would happen, that the opener would not be played in an empty stadium.

One hour, the Golden State Warriors announced that they will play a game with no fans. The next hour, the NBA said there is no game at all. Soon after, the NHL halted its season. The NCAA announces its March Madness will play in empty arenas.

The Pearl Jam concert coming to St. Louis was cancelled.

The virus had entered the jet stream of our country. As I tuck some unwritten postcards into an unread book I jotted down, “There’s no way there’s a baseball game tomorrow.”

March 12, 2020 – A Thursday

There was a baseball game. We started the day with Florida’s governor stating no event should involve a crowd of more than 250 people. The day continued, and the game was not cancelled. Thousands streamed into Roger Dean Stadium, and the game was not cancelled. At some point around the seventh or eighth inning of the exhibition game, Major League Baseball announced that all baseball operations will cease – and yet before our eyes we saw baseball operations continue, uninterrupted, for the Cardinals and Marlins.

Frederickson captured how surreal the game was here.

March 13, 2020 – A Friday

On the first day without baseball for a long time, the first thing we noticed was all the lizards. Along all the sidewalks from our condo to the media workroom, all over the walkways around Roger Dean Stadium, were dozens of lizards. With no foot traffic for the game, no crowds due to the virus, the lizards swarmed to the warmth of sidewalks as clear as the Florida sky.

One barely flinched as Frederickson inched close for a photo.

The lounging lizards and lack of traffic around the ballpark contrasted with the frenetic activity within the walls of the Cardinals’ complex.

This morning, players were told to stay in the Jupiter area. This afternoon, minor-league players were told to head home, and in a dizzying feat of logistics the Cardinals’ minor-league officials orchestrated the travel plans to get 170 plane tickets home. A group of players from Venezuela were flown to the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic for what turned out to be months instead of days. Within seven hours, players on the 40-man roster were told to stick around town and then, as evening arrived, urged to head home if they could, wherever that was.

“What we know now versus what we know 24 hours ago has changed quite a bit, and what we’re going to know later today, or tonight, or tomorrow, is going to be different than what I know now,” Mozeliak told a few of us who remained in Jupiter. “And so, the best response is that we have to remain nimble, flexible. Keep reassessing today, tomorrow, and just day by day, hour by hour.”

We spent the rest of the day writing or planning what to write, and then decided to follow the lead of the lizards and avoid crowds.

March 14, 2020 – A Saturday

It was Frederickson’s idea. It was MLB.com’s Anne Rogers’ choreography. It was the Hall of Famer Rick Hummel who gave it style. Waiting for some direction and in between ongoing conversations for what is next for baseball, this was the day the baseball reporters learned how to TikTok.

March 15, 2020 – A Sunday

What I wrote down about this day was how gorgeous it was outside, how crowds glided toward an incredible sunny day in South Florida with water sports galore and beaches to explore.

I started the day by hunting for toilet paper.

The local grocery was picked clean. Target and Wal-Mart, too. I had a backup plan, Walgreens, and scored some there. Today was set aside to set up for the long haul of calling Jupiter home until the season opened week, even months from now. The Cardinals had put together a plan for small-group workouts, and where there are Cardinals the Post-Dispatch stays to cover. So, I made a supply run. And then – well, it was a lovely day to find some nook of Jupiter that had plenty of hand sanitizer and limited crowds. It had been years since I climbed the famed Jupiter Lighthouse. From there, we bunkered in the stocked-up bureau and waited for what’s next.

March 16, 2020 – A Monday

While the owners were holding a meeting the convoy of players arriving at the ballpark to clean out their lockers revealed the outcome of that meeting.

Baseball was about to be postponed indefinitely, and its return was not clear.

Commissioner Rob Manfred emerged from the Cardinals’ offices after the meeting to see his shadow and tell us there would be eight more weeks without baseball. The start of the regular season had been pushed back until mid-May, at the earliest. Spring training facilities closed. No small-group workouts. Nothing. No games to get ready for, no sense of a schedule or restart date. Several players, including Andrew Miller and Adam Wainwright, stopped to talk to the group of reporters that remained. Prospect Zack Thompson came by to retrieve gear he would need for the stoppage and described the unknown.

“And what if there isn’t a minor-league season?” he asked. “What does it mean to lose your first season in pro ball? I may have to find out.”

The official, complete closing of camp meant one other thing.

The reporters could head home, too.

Less than an hour after the commissioner paused the sport, Molina walked out of the Cardinals’ clubhouse, tugged on some sweatbands, and plugged in earbuds. Baseball stopped, not his workouts. He had the streets virtually to himself and, without games to play, he had miles to get in. Molina ran out of the ballpark, turned down University toward Central Boulevard. At the end of the Cardinals’ facility he turned left, running away from the uncertainty of these empty ballfields. He vanished out of sight.

The next day so did we.

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