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Rays face new risks as they hit the road

After five games at home, players have to deal with a new routine and severe restrictions — such as not leaving the hotel when off the field.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) speaks with Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino (10) and major league field coordinator Paul Hoover before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. The Rays embark on their first road trip today.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) speaks with Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino (10) and major league field coordinator Paul Hoover before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. The Rays embark on their first road trip today. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published Jul. 29, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — After starting the season with five games within the comforts of Tropicana Field, the Rays head out on the road this morning with a flight to Atlanta.

That itself is different, as they typically travel after the game the night before. But this is baseball amid a coronavirus pandemic, and much is changed about travel, most concerningly the potential danger of additional exposure from being on buses and planes, and in hotels and different ballparks.

Plus, there’s the cautionary tale of the Marlins, who had a COVID-19 outbreak during their trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia and have had their season paused.

Related: Fauci says Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak could endanger MLB season

So in addition to their usual baggage, the Rays also are carrying some worry and concern.

“There’s a lot of risk that becomes involved,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “It’s very eye opening to see how quick this can really spread once you open it up to travel, once you open it up to playing other teams you leave that little safety bubble we created.”

The Rays are taking many precautions, starting with requiring masks at all stages of the trip for their traveling party of about 65, some even beyond what’s required in Major League Baseball’s 10 pages of travel protocols.

“The Rays have done such a good job,” player rep Tyler Glasnow said. “Some would say even too good of a job, with the masks … and the cleanliness.”

Rather than their usual Delta-chartered plane configured with 71 first-class seats, the Rays will use a 757 with 195 seats, allowing everyone his own row. They will spread the group out among four to five buses rather than the regular two, limiting capacity to 15, staggering arrivals to the airport and hotel.

Players are required to take the buses to and from the ballpark, as the Rays are going beyond league rules in banning the use of ride-share services and taxis.

And no rides from friends and relatives, who also are not allowed in the team hotel.

Players are being “strongly encouraged” not to leave the hotels in Atlanta and Baltimore, and if they do are under orders to not go anywhere, such as an indoor restaurant or bar, that could increase their exposure to the virus. Meals will be eaten at the ballpark or, mostly, after delivery to their hotel rooms (with a phone app to pre-order), with no gathering in the lobbies or other common areas, part of an overall effort to limit players from congregating.

“We’re going to the extreme on a lot of things,” travel and logistics director Chris Westmoreland said.

Related: MLB is being shortsighted with Marlins outbreak

A sampling of players seems to make it clear they’ve gotten the message. “We’re going to be extra cautious in everything we do throughout the whole day,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.

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Glasnow, who missed the first 11 days of Spring 2.0 camp due to his own mild case of COVID-19, said they’ve also gotten the point— that they all have to sacrifice and shoulder responsibility to keep the whole group safe.

“As of now from what I understand with our team, ‘It’s stay in the hotel, you can’t leave,’ and I think that’s the understanding of most teams,” he said.

“We all have a really tight-knit group so I’m not concerned with anyone breaking the rules at all. Everyone is like married, too, so what are you going to go do — go to a night club? There’s not much to do. I think we’re good to go.” (Glasnow is actually among the single players, but said, “You know what I’m trying so say.”)

Veteran Charlie Morton said they have no choice but to trust each other to do what’s right:

“This is only going to be as effective as each individual piece is in this. It’s like, ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link’ kind of applies here. I don’t know how else to look at it.”

Manager Kevin Cash said the team has been “very impressed” with how the players have handled the protocols thus far, but acknowledged “we’re going to be challenged again” heading out on the road.

“Just have to do a really good job of abiding to keeping everybody safe, the rules, being accountable to each other,” he said. “And being able to look at a group or a player or myself and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to tighten it up a little bit because there’s a lot at stake.’ ”

On a much lesser scale is the concern of what they’re going to do, spending a good part of the five days in hotel rooms. Some have called friends on other teams to see how they managed.

Glasnow plans to binge watch TV series. Pitcher Blake Snell will mostly be playing video games as he usually does, noting, “I have an Xbox and it works very well.” Kiermaier is among those unsure how he’s going to pass the hours, mentioning scrolling YouTube, doing crossword puzzles and using the Rays video scouting system (accessible to players via iPad and phone) to study opposing pitchers and his own swing.

Still, he’s not sure how this will go.

“I’m a person who can’t sit still and there’s not going to be any leaving the hotel,” he said. “I’ll have a better answer for you come next week, see if I’m not driving myself crazy with all that down time in the hotel room.”

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