PORT CHARLOTTE — In what seems a clear sign Major League Baseball expects a lengthy delay before starting the season, players were given permission Friday afternoon to leave spring training camps and go home.
That decision came out of discussions between Major League Baseball and union officials about next steps following Thursday’s announcement to suspend spring training games and push back the planned March 26 start of the season at least two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Players on the Rays and other teams are being given three choices:
To go to their offseason homes (though international players potentially could face travel restrictions in the fast-changing landscape), to go to their team’s home area, or to remain in camp and use the field and weight room facilities, and maintain direct access to the team’s medical staff. (Also, players who stay will continue to receive the $195 a day meal and housing allowance at least through the planned end of camp.)
The Rays also are allowing their coaches, on-field and support staff the opportunity to go home, and they are suspending minor-league camp and sending most of the 150-plus players home. (Some who are rehabbing injuries or have extenuating circumstances, such as being from Venezuela, will have an opportunity to stay.)
There had been some discussion whether players were better off being around teammates and staff in the facility or could be more comfortable at home and with family, even if the risk of exposure might be higher on their own.
The union made clear it wanted them to have the choice.
The situation with the Rays is somewhat different than other teams given the proximity to Port Charlotte. Some players have year-round homes in the Tampa-St. Pete area they could move back to, and others already have rental agreements in place that start next weekend, when camp was to break.
Player union rep Tyler Glasnow said it wasn’t clear yet where most of the Rays would go.
“Guys haven’t made any decisions yet. It’s still too early to tell," Glasnow said via text Friday night. “Everyone is pretty neutral at this point."
Wherever they end up, general manager Erik Neander said the most important issue is keeping them healthy.
“No matter where they are it’s important to practice social distancing and limiting social interaction," Neander said Friday night. “And we have the confidence the players, no matter the location, are going to do this because we all want to get past this and return to some sort of normalcy as soon as possible."
Allowing players to go home, where they are not going to throw or hit with the same intensity as in camp, makes it all but official a second “spring” training will have to be held in advance of whenever the season is scheduled to start.
Even though the Thursday announcement suggested a potential April 9 start, others in the game said privately they didn’t expect to start playing until sometime in May at the soonest.
Some teams, such as the Tampa-based Yankees, plan to stay in camp for now, though that could change the longer the delay lasts.
Neander said the priority at this point is on issues related to the virus and logistics, and they later will focus on the baseball-related scheduling issue.
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The Rays plan to have the facility in Port Charlotte open for players to work out on Saturday, then Monday-Friday next week, but closed to others such as family and friends, media and fans. Their tentative plan is to also make Tropicana Field available for players to work out starting March 23 so players have a choice of sites.
Neander said the uncertain timetable and quickly changing parameters are among many unknowns team and league officials were dealing with.
“We’re trying to do the best we can to be responsible, not only to one another but to our fans and to the community at large," he said. “This is certainly an unprecedented situation for all of us here."
Neander did say Friday afternoon that no Rays players or staff had tested positive for the virus, and that none had reported symptoms to the team medical staff.
Also, that the Rays have been proactive and vigilant in going “above and beyond” industry standards as far as cleaning and sanitizing the training facility, and thus no current plans to bring in haz-mat type cleaning crews as some other teams reportedly were doing this weekend.
The plan evolved quickly Friday.
The Rays held a brief 10 a.m. meeting with their players at the Port Charlotte facility and conveyed a recommendation from Major League Baseball and top health organizations that they stay in the general area at least through the weekend, and that they don’t travel to reduce the potential for exposure to the virus.
“They said if guys have places close they could go home but they do not want guys driving out of state or getting on a plane," centerfielder Kevin Kiermiaer said.
The meeting, which lasted less than 15 minutes, also included reminders of the basic precautions, such as washing hands, using sanitizer, avoiding large groups.
The discussions between the league and the union were slated to also cover other issues, such as when players would be paid, compensation if they stay in camp, awarding service time for an abbreviated season.
“We are currently in a day-to-day holding pattern,” Neander said around noon.
That changed, again.