ST. PETERSBURG — Today was supposed to be the start of something special.
The Trop was going to be sold out, 25,000 strong. Vendors selling hot dogs and beer. Fans root, root, rooting for the home team.
And the Rays playing baseball against the Pirates, the first of 162 games in a season of great expectations and championship dreams.
Instead, like the rest of the world idled by the coronavirus pandemic, it will be the opening day that isn’t.
“Completely respecting what’s taking place, but the second we got eliminated last year in Houston, you start thinking to some level about March 26, and it’s not happening," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s not happening because people are trying to do the right thing, but, yeah … "
There was a banner, marking last year’s wild-card playoff berth, to be raised. A first pitch to be thrown by former Rays star James Shields. Schmoozing to be done by local politicos. Pomp to be enjoyed and circumstance experienced.
“Opening day is a deep American tradition which we all in Tampa Bay have the opportunity to experience firsthand," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday. “The Rays are disappointed that we cannot throw a first pitch on Thursday. Fortunately, that first pitch and opening day will come, and when it does, we will all have even greater cause to celebrate it.”
But for now, they wait.
A dozen or so players, some coaches and Cash are living in the Tampa Bay area, and another group has stayed around the team’s spring base in Port Charlotte. Others are scattered to offseason homes around the country and literally the world, Ji-Man Choi deciding he was better off going home to South Korea and Yoshi Tsutsugo to Japan.
“This is just a weird time," said pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who is in St. Petersburg. “It’s definitely a bummer. Hopefully it’s resolved sooner than later."
The uncertainty is unsettling for all. On a normal opening day, about 1,000 people are working at the Trop. Now it’s empty and being considered a potential site for virus testing or as a mobile hospital, with a drive to collect medical supplies in a parking lot.
“For now we are singularly focused on helping the region get through this crisis and we are putting our organization’s resources to that end," Sternberg said.
The waiting is particularly challenging for athletes used to a routine and a schedule, even more so when their questions can’t be answered. Cash and his coaches have made a point to reach out regularly to the players via text and phone calls.
“Just trying to do the best we can right now just to show the players that we care," Cash said. “We care about how you’re doing, your well-being, your families, your whereabouts. We’re not really saying, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’"
The players are taking it on their own to stay in shape, some with routine drills, some a bit more creatively.
Outfielder Austin Meadows stayed in the Port Charlotte area, getting outside as much as possible to run, take some swings and throw a ball against the house.
Also, he said via text, “Hitting the ball so my dog (Maylee) can chase it. Being real creative. Lol."
So is infielder Daniel Robertson, who went home to southern California, mixing beach workouts and trail hikes with more specific activities, such as lunges while holding a surfboard. “Trying just to keep the legs and body going as much as possible," he said.
Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier was also improvising while staying in Port Charlotte, using rubber resistance bands to do assorted stretching and strengthening exercises such as with a bat, and doing jumps onto concrete blocks.
Same for infielders Mike Brosseau and Kevin Padlo, who take turns working out with limited bands and hand weights while playing the MLB The Show video game. “We calculated it being a solid 30-minute workout each for each game," Brosseau said. “It allows us to not get tired of it too quick."
Pitcher Ryan Yarbrough was able to take some weights to his Tampa home from the Diesel Fitness center where he works out during the off-season, and has been throwing in the backyard with Shane McClanahan, who is staying with Ryan and his wife, Nicole.
Some other players have more formal setups.
Brandon Lowe is working out in what he calls the “quarantine setup” in the garage of his St. Petersburg house, hitting balls tossed by his wife Madison, a former college softball player, into a net. “Staying in shape with the makeshift gym I have," he said. “And going on walks with our dog."
Joey Wendle spends the winters near family in Pennsylvania, so he has a more formal workout facility in his basement, with free weights, cardio equipment and a batting tee to hit rubber balls into a wall covered with leftover carpet.
“I’m set up pretty well," he said. “It’s a little weird but I feel like I’ll be ready quickly once they say we’re ready to go."
Passing the time in relative self- or family isolation has been another challenge, beyond playing video games (which if you’re really bored you can watch Blake Snell do so via Twitch) and watching lots of TV.
Pitcher Anthony Banda is doing improvements to his Texas home, extending the patio deck now, planning next to do backsplash tile in the kitchen and improve the sprinkler system. Also on the list: building a mound in his backyard.
Brandon Lowe has been reading, with a list that includes Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win; Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter; Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable.
Glasnow, who has plenty of emails to keep up with as the team’s union rep, has been listening to lots of podcasts, preferring Joe Rogan and Malcolm Gladwell.
Wendle has been helping wife Lindsey with their two boys, 22-month-old Jack and 7-week-old Luke. “I feel like I’m multi-tasking better," he quipped.
Another common activity for the players has been cooking. Glasnow said he makes a pretty good seared salmon with vegetables. Brosseau, an Indiana boy, sticks to steak and chicken.
Robertson has been experimenting of late with an Insta-Pot. Also, he joked, “Trying to try as many different wines during this time."
But what they really want, understandably, is to play ball.
“Just waiting," Banda said, “to hear, ‘Hey, come back.’"
Here’s how the Rays were likely to line up for today’s planned 4:10 p.m. start against the Pirates and ex-mate Chris Archer:
Austin Meadows, LF
Brandon Lowe, 2B
Yandy Diaz, 3B
Ji-Man Choi, 1B
Yoshi Tsutsugo, DH
Hunter Renfroe, RF
Kevin Kiermaier, CF
Willy Adames, SS
Mike Zunino, C
Charlie Morton, P