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Can spring training be coronavirus-proofed?

At the first Tampa sporting event since coronavirus cases were confirmed in the area, some Yankees fans came prepared.
New York Yankees pitcher Zack Britton (53) licks his fingers before he pitches against the Boston Red Sox during a spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
New York Yankees pitcher Zack Britton (53) licks his fingers before he pitches against the Boston Red Sox during a spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 4, 2020

TAMPA — Chaim Bloom, the former Rays executive now in charge of the Boston Red Sox baseball operations, had just signed a handful of autographs Tuesday morning when he retreated down the tunnel of the visiting dugout at Steinbrenner Field and quickly turned into the restroom to wash his hands.

“I feel like I have to get used to this,” he said, matter of factly.

With three confirmed cases of coronavirus in Florida — all in the Tampa Bay area — people are taking added precautions. And Tuesday’s spring training game between the New York Yankees and Red Sox was the first sporting event in Tampa since the news that coronavirus hit the area.

While outbreaks in other countries like Japan and Italy have halted sports seasons, there didn’t seem to be much concern among the crowd of 9,545 at Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday. There were no fans wearing surgical masks. Money transferred through ungloved hands as normal. Players still signed autographs before the game. On the field, maybe there were more fistbumps than open-handed high fives.

Hillary Hudson, right, (his real name) serves ice cream to Tony Urbanovich, left, and his mother-in-law Sarah DeFrancis, right, during the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Hillary Hudson, right, (his real name) serves ice cream to Tony Urbanovich, left, and his mother-in-law Sarah DeFrancis, right, during the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Major League Baseball has no plans to postpone the regular season because of coronavirus, but it is monitoring the situation and is in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Health Human Services while providing guidance to clubs, staff members and players that mirror the CDC’s guidance and recommendations to wash hands and use sanitizer often. The league is also creating a task force consisting of league and club staff, including medical, to make future recommendations and is reaching out to other sports leagues to share information about the measures they are taking.

“Our medical staff, they’re concerned about it,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said. “They gave us a bunch of different things, a bunch of different sprays to use and make sure you’re washing your hands all the time. … Those things we’ve been made aware of.”

Stronger preventative measures are coming. While players signed autographs before Tuesday’s game, MLB has advised players to avoid shaking hands with fans or accepting items from fans — like pens or balls — as part of signing autographs.

Retired doctor Thomas DiSessa wasn’t going to let it stop watching a spring training game. The Lexington, Ky., resident had been planning his trip to Tampa for three months. He wore a full Yankees home pinstriped uniform with a No. 5 on the back of his jersey for Joe DiMaggio.

“In order to get the dang thing, you’ve got to inhale it,” said DiSessa, a retired professor of pediatric cardiology at the University of Kentucky. “And to inhale (the virus), it’s got to be in close proximity to you. On a windy day like this, as soon as somebody sneezes, it’s gone with the breeze.”

New York Yankees outfield Clint Frazier (77) slap hands with an unidentified coach in the dugout between innings during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
New York Yankees outfield Clint Frazier (77) slap hands with an unidentified coach in the dugout between innings during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Mike and Whitney Wilson traveled from Salt Lake City, Utah, to watch the Yankees with their two young children, 2-year-old Ellis and 8-month-old Maleah. Ellis clutched a baseball signed by Yankees minor leaguer Kellin Deglan.

“It (matters),” said Whitney, a life-long Yankees fan.”That’s why we have hand sanitizer and wipes and anything you can think of.”

“Back home we have mosquitos that carry West Nile and other things,” Mike said. “There’s always something disease out there. If you let that stop you, you’re never going to do anything.”

Inside the clubhouses, though, it’s been a topic of conversation. Players worry that — if the virus becomes more widespread — the baseball itself could become a transmitter of the virus because so many different hands touch it, from the clubhouse attendants that put mud on it before the game, to the umpire to the catcher to the pitcher and to the infielders, who throw the ball around after outs.

Baseball fans sit in the stands to watch the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Baseball fans sit in the stands to watch the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spring training game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Pitchers regularly lick their fingers for moisture to get a better grip on baseballs.

“Everyone touches the ball, the only guys who are safe are the outfielders, until the ball comes to them,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton said. “I don’t know how it spreads, but if it spreads by touching the same thing, then yeah, we’re going to have issues.”

In Japan, preseason baseball games are being played in empty stadiums to prevent coronavirus from spreading and officials are considering canceling the regular season, which is scheduled to start on March 20. The concerns are compounded by the fact that the Summer Olympics is coming to Tokyo in a few months, bringing athletes and fans from all over the world. An Olympic baseball qualifying even scheduled for next month in Taiwan is being postponed until June.0

“Public health is more important than the games,” Britton said. “Any time you can stop the spread of it would be ideal, so if that’s what happens, that’s what happens. I’d rather everyone be safe than we start spreading something by having games and putting that many people close to each other, especially when it’s not necessary.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.