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PORT CHARLOTTE — Major League Baseball finally addressed the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, suspending spring training games and delaying the start of the regular season for at least two weeks.
That means the Rays won’t start their season as scheduled, hosting the Pirates on March 26 at a sold-out Tropicana Field.
When they do, or whether they do, remains unclear given the fast-spreading virus that forced league officials to take action, the announcement coming as the Rays were playing what turned out to be their final — for now — spring game, an 8-4 loss to the Phillies.
“Our season will be played when it’s time," manager Kevin Cash said.
MLB said it has prepared “a variety of contingency plans” regarding the regular-season schedule, and will remain flexible “with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”
It is probable some missed games will be tacked on at the end of the season, which was to conclude Sept. 27. There is a possibility for a full 162-game season if play were to start with only the two-week delay by April 9, otherwise it likely would be the first abbreviated season since 1995.
While some teams already announced plans to keep their spring facilities open for players to continue working out, general manager Erik Neander said the Rays were still gathering information and would proceed on essentially a day-to-day basis, starting with a meeting with their players at 10 a.m Friday.
“Where we are right now, we’re going to continue to get perspective on timing, potential timing, what we learned about the virus and appropriate protocols," he said. “We’re going to be very careful with how we operate, and the confidence we have in anything that we’re thinking right now."
Cash said input from the players in the meeting will factor into the plan. Options could include continuing workouts in Port Charlotte, relocating operations to the Trop or allowing players to go home.
“We’re probably going to get the temperature of the group (Friday),” Cash said. “I’m sure people will have some things to say and then we’ll have more information as we go.”
The league also will provide some guidance for the teams, and Neander said he would expect a collaborative process.
“There’s a lot of sensitivities in play here — for players, for staff, for communities — and you want to do right by as many of those people as possible," he said.
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At the least, Neander said he would expect some “next steps” to be shared Friday. Players will have the rest of the day off, and the facility will be closed to media and other visitors.
Cash said it was somewhat of a “surreal” scene Thursday as players were getting snippets of information during the game, and he talked several times on the phone from the dugout with Neander. “A very odd day at the ballpark," he said.
Speaking before the announcement was official, Rays pitcher Brendan McKay said the players understood the thinking.
“It’s what it is — it’s tough,” he said. “But as a big organization you’ve got to cover yourself. You can’t have 26 guys from a team plus all the staff, if one guy gets infected with it and it keeps spreading it just turns into more. Trying to eliminate all that and keep everybody safe.”
Nor were they surprised at the decision.
“We kind of figured this was going to be our last game,” Kevin Kiermaier said. "We just looked at the writing on the wall and put two and two together. Sporting events are just shutting down everywhere, so why would we not do the same thing? This is precautionary measures to look out for every single individual involved. Obviously very, very serious. ...
“We want to go out there and we want to play, but at the same time, lives are at risk and looking at the bigger picture we need to stay clear of everyone out there because this is just how crazy this thing is.”
With at least two NBA players diagnosed with the virus, there is a fair amount of speculative conversation that some baseball players somewhere are infected.
Asked if there were plans to test players and staff for the virus, Neander said: “We’re taking as many of the appropriate precautions as we can. When it comes to testing, at this point that’s not a step to get into publicly."
Given that players share a locker room and are in close quarters, McKay said there is only so much players can do.
“It’s just a tough situation overall,” he said. “You’re trying to take care of yourself but you can’t go out and play in a hazmat suit or anything like that. You’d probably die down here (in Florida) doing that. You take all the precautions you can and if it pops up it happens. You’ll get it taken care of.”
The Rays and the league stressed the action was taken in the best interest for all parties.
“Players are of course disappointed they won’t be able to compete on the field," union chief Tony Clark said, “At the same time, they recognize the importance of public health and safety.”
There are obviously a number of questions still be answered.
• Will players, who are not paid during spring training, get paid starting March 26, or will that be delayed until the regular season starts?
• What to do with the 100-plus players in minor-league camp, as their season, which was to start April 9, has also been delayed indefinitely. (They, too, will have an informational meeting Friday, and still get meals at the facility.)
• How to work out logistics if workouts do continue in Port Charlotte, as most players had housing only through the end of March.
Refunds for canceled spring games are available for fans who bought tickets through mlb.com/rays. Season ticket holders will receive a credit on their account. The team said no information on refunds for canceled regular-season games is available yet.
The team on Thursday night said it supported the MLB decision, noting "the health and safety of our staff, players, fans and the entire Tampa Bay community is of the utmost importance to us.'' Also, that they "will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with local and state authorities, as well as our partners in MLB as this situation evolves.''
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