PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays’ meticulous, strategic plan to keep their players safe — and thus separated — during what is typically a time for team-building has not been without some ribbing.
2020 team MVP Brandon Lowe noted, on more than one occasion, that he was relegated to the minor-league clubhouse with other key big-leaguers.
“We have the star of the postseason, Randy (Arozarena) back there. We’ve got (Ryan) Yarbrough. The other star of the postseason, (Brett) Phillips is back there,” Lowe said. “So we have a star-studded locker room, and we’re just shoved in the back and we feel like no one remembers us. … And there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi, so we’re close.”
Rays officials, as you’d expect, put a lot of thought and planning into how best to apply the league and union’s coronavirus protocols to the spring training setting. That included splitting up lockers of players at the same position to reduce impact on the roster from the spread of infection or a close-contact quarantine (with monitoring by Kinexon electronic tracing devices) and limiting players from gathering to eat, lift weights or linger in either clubhouse.
The challenge was doing so without disrupting the camaraderie developed during the spring that has been a key part of their success.
“Different” is one word you hear a lot, first baseman Ji-Man Choi said, noting the lack of joking around after workouts/games “is definitely missing.”
“Difficult” is another. “It’s hard,” said shortstop Willy Adames, one of the more social Rays. “There’s some guys I haven’t seen yet … because we are spread out in the clubhouse and on the minor-league side, too. So it’s tough.
“I like to be joking around with the guys, having fun. For me to not be able to do that is hard. Especially for the whole group, because that’s how we are. That’s how you create that chemistry with all the guys in the spring training. This is the base.”
Integrating the players new to the organization also is more challenging.
“It’s definitely harder than it was last year in spring,” Lowe said. “We had a bunch of new guys last year, as well. But we were all in the same locker room. We were able to converse and have a good time. Now it’s a little bit more difficult to kind of get to know the new guys.”
It’s even harder when you can’t see their faces, as masks have to be worn inside the facility.
Manager Kevin Cash played with left-handed pitcher Rich Hill in Boston and was his bullpen coach in Cleveland. But early in camp, Cash mistook Kenny Rosenberg, a 25-year-old minor-leaguer, for Hill, who just turned 41. Cash said it took until last week to feel he had a chance to ID all 75 players in camp.
Some returning players have taken the initiative to seek out the newcomers and minor-league prospects. Others ask for introductions. Starting to play games last weekend helped, because the field and dugout are mixed zones, free of forced separation for players on the lineup card and coaches. (Non-participating players sit in a tent next to the dugout.)
Hill and Collin McHugh, another veteran pickup, have stayed on the field for batting practice (which pitchers don’t usually do) just to chat. “Having the ability to stand out on the field and just kind of talk baseball and talk life, that’s where a lot of the good conversations happen,” McHugh said.
There’s also talk of small group outings, taking advantage of the March 1 rules relaxation allowing players to eat at restaurants with outdoor seating. “Just so we can build some off-the-field camaraderie over a meal, talk about family, talk about something other than baseball,” veteran Chris Archer said. “So that baseball conversations down the road are a little easier.”
“It’s a big deal,” said McHugh. “It’s a long baseball season. I think everybody coming from all over the country, all over the world, kind of coming into this one spot, having the ability to get together away from the baseball field is something we really haven’t had the opportunity to do.”
Bench coach Matt Quatraro compiled the Rays’ plan with input from Joe Benge and the athletic trainers, Tyler Wall’s clubhouse crew, Tim McKechney of the Port Charlotte staff, Cash and others.
That included dividing the rostered players between the clubhouses based on major-league service time, then separating them by position and filling in every other locker. A trailer was needed as the COVID-19 testing station, and tents were built in the parking lot for dining space — food is served in to-go containers — and an auxiliary workout area. Any extra space was repurposed to spread out staff.
“We laid it out and we kind of walked through a day,” Quatraro said.
Next came scheduling the early camp and pregame workouts — “kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” Quatraro said — avoiding overlaps and gatherings to see the trainers, use the weight room, or grab food. The only full team meeting was held in the stadium, with players spread out in the stands.
“We were just trying to be safe, and maybe we went too far. We’d rather be safe than sorry,” Quatraro said. “The camaraderie part is a part that’s not really measurable. We don’t know if it’s going to be a detriment or whatever, but I think if we prioritize people’s health and we get through spring, then we can deal with the camaraderie as the season starts.”
Cash said at the opening of camp he expected the team-building to carry into the season: “I don’t know if we’ve got to be the best version of ourselves opening day.”
Now halfway through, he thinks it will be less of an issue. Cash said the players, as they did once the 2020 season started, have adapted to the circumstances — along with the potential for the protocols to be relaxed during the season — and made the best of it. “It’s a special group,” he said.
Tyler Glasnow and Joey Wendle also are among the unconcerned, noting the quality of people on the team and saying they are confident that as the roster is reduced (even though sent-down players don’t have anywhere to go with minor-league spring training delayed), bonding will increase.
Lowe said the back-room boys also are trying, though he may or may not have slipped over to the big-league clubhouse at times: “I try to, like, tilt my hat down and just keep my head down so no one sees me.”