PORT CHARLOTTE — In time, there will be comprehensive scientific studies of the long-term implications of COVID-19 on elite athletes.
For now, Austin Meadows seems a pretty good example of how even a relatively mild case can ruin a 60-game baseball season. And, potentially, alter a career trajectory.
The symptoms Meadows had in July weren’t much — general fatigue for a few days and a loss of his senses of taste and of smell (which still isn’t all the way back).
But it was enough to start the Rays outfielder down the spiral of a disappointing 2020 showing.
The three weeks Meadows was sidelined at the start of the Spring 2.0 training camp had a direct effect on him being out of shape, getting injured and playing much less productively. He hit .205 with four homers, 13 RBIs and a .667 OPS in 36 games, down considerably from his breakout 2019 season when he earned All-Star honors, was voted co-team MVP and had discussions, since-tabled, on a long-term deal.
“His season was pretty messed up given COVID, injuries here and there,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He was always kind of swimming uphill, trying to catch up. And it’s tough to do at the major-league level when you’re rushed. He wanted to be here. He wanted to perform like he did in 2019. Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.”
And sometimes, you have to do something about it.
“I’m not one to make excuses,” Meadows said. “But I do think with COVID going on, and actually getting it and being behind, not doing what I needed to do when it came to eating right and everything. I did work out at home, but I feel like I didn’t have that routine like you would at the field.
“... I was a little bit heavier, didn’t feel as athletic, and obviously that kind of hurt my performance. So I learned from that.”
Meadows, 25, went hard this offseason, determined to drop 10-15 pounds to return to his 2019 playing weight of around 220 and regain the quick-twitch moves that used to be standard equipment.
He took a few weeks off following the disappointing 2020 postseason, where he returned unexpectedly fast from a September oblique strain. He hit a huge homer in the decisive fifth game of the division series against the Yankees but didn’t do much else.
Then he got busy, working out regularly at the Athletic Edge Sports Performance Training Center in Lakewood Ranch. Once a week, he met in Tampa with Rays strength and conditioning assistant Joey Greany, doing ladder and cone drills while focusing on short bursts to increase his quickness.
Meadows gave up sugars and fried foods and signed on with Tampa’s Whole Body Fuel meal prep service to provide healthy options he and his wife, Alexis, could pop in the microwave.
“I took a ton of initiative,” Meadows said. “I felt like I put myself in the best position to succeed.”
Meadows’ appearance quickly became a topic of conversation across camp.
“Austin looks awesome,” Cash said.
More importantly, there were obvious differences on the field. This Meadows is stronger, quicker, faster, and freer in his movements.
Cash noted how much better Meadows has been in reaching and handling a variety of pitches. Hitting coach Chad Mottola said there’s “an easy, night-and-day difference in his work: “last year he struggled to repeat moves,” but now he progresses through all drills.
“The key, especially for me, is feeling athletic in the box,” Meadows said. “I think that I’ve gone back to that. I feel athletic. I feel light on my feet. I feel like I’m able to get to balls quicker and better when it comes to inside pitches.”
The Rays are hoping he can return to his 2019 self, when he hit .291 with 33 home runs, 89 RBIs, and a .922 OPS in 138 games.
“That’s what we feel Austin Meadows is,” Mottola said. “It’s pretty easy to trace back what went wrong last year. So the cause and effect is real. The COVID and the way it hit him, and he never really got in shape. And it kind of humbled him a little bit.”
Having to reestablish himself as an impact player as a by-product of getting sick isn’t ideal, but Meadows knows his COVID-19 case could have been much worse.
”Everything checked out with my heart and everything like that; that’s obviously the major concern,” he said. “But, yeah, I’m good. I feel good, and I’m ready to go.”