MLB's coronavirus hiatus hits Giants fans hard on spring training flight

MLB's coronavirus hiatus hits Giants fans hard on spring training flight

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It certainly wasn't the bubbly, energetic and spirited flight I'm used to taking every March, that's for sure.

I flew to Arizona on Wednesday morning to participate in the three Giants spring training broadcasts that NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Bay Area had left. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak had caused cancellations and rampant repercussions everywhere, but there were no updates on what Major League Baseball planned to do when I woke up at 5 a.m. and checked my phone.

I checked it again after my shower at 6 a.m. Nothing. Checked it again on the Lyft ride to the San Francisco airport from 7:30 to 9. Nothing. And there still was no word when I got on my 10:20 flight.

At that point, I boarded alongside cautiously optimistic baseball fans thinking there was a slim chance these spring training games might happen. The plane wasn't full, but it was full enough that the two seats next to me were swooped up by Giants fans.

"I'm going to fan-girl out for a minute," the woman next to me said as she scooting in.

"Hi," I replied.

"You going to work the games?"

"I hope so."

"Do you think they're going to cancel them?"

"I hope not," I said. I couldn't help but feel empathetic.

Her nails were painted orange and black. Her purse was made with Giants material, and her husband had his Giants cap on.

"We're meeting our friends in Scottsdale for their first spring training game," she said. And then the plane took off.

The majority of the passengers on board were Giants and A's fans, donning their respective teams' gear. Two-plus hours later -- almost at the exact time the plane's wheels touched ground in Phoenix -- the announcement came from MLB that the remainder of spring training games had been canceled and Opening Day would be postponed at least two weeks.

My neighbor turned to me and said, "I guess we made the trip for nothing."

The disappointment was palpable. The groans were unanimous. It was a very good reminder of just how much sports mean to people.

I've been doing this long enough to be able to compare this day to when baseball halted for a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In a time like this, the coronavirus is bigger than all of us, and much bigger than these games.

But when people say, "It's just a game," no -- it's not. It's an outlet for so many, and a source of income for some. It's an escape. It's fun, competitive, social, uniting ... and it's understandably disappointing to see it come to a halt, even though it's the right thing to do.

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However long the hiatus lasts, it will feel even longer than that. But it will be so, so sweet when sports returns -- and they will.

To the nice woman sitting next to me on the plane: Continue to paint your nails with your favorite team's colors and proudly carry your Giants purse. I'll be looking for you at the yard when baseball comes back.

Giants scrimmage notes: Johnny Cueto named Opening Day starter again

Giants scrimmage notes: Johnny Cueto named Opening Day starter again

The last thing Giants manager Gabe Kapler did before the coronavirus shut down the sport was name Johnny Cueto his Opening Day starter. Four months later, that remains the case. 

After Cueto got past 60 pitches in a simulated game Tuesday, Kapler said he had a long conversation with the right-hander and Cueto will start against the Dodgers next Thursday in a nationally-televised game. 

Cueto, of course, had already made this official:

That was some of the news of the day. Here's more from the five-inning game at Oracle Park between Team Black and Team Orange, along with some updates from Kapler: 

--- The highlight of the game was Alex Dickerson's bomb to right off Shaun Anderson:

--- Tyler Heineman put a bunt down and also stole third for the second time in a week. He continues to make an impression in the battle for the starting catcher job, and Kapler has spent a fair amount of time after workouts talking about the little things Heineman does well. 

--- Triples Alley is six feet shorter, but it's still an easy triple for Steven Duggar. He lined one out there with two runners on and cruised into third standing up even though Joe McCarthy got to the ball pretty quickly. Two runs scored. 

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

--- Joey Bart had a hard single to right in his first at-bat, but his most impressive feat came two pitches earlier. On the first pitch he saw from hard-throwing righty Rico Garcia, Bart smacked a liner to right that bounced off the bricks where the Alaska Airlines suite is located in foul territory down the line. He was about 10 feet away from an opposite-field double off the archway, which is a pretty solid feat for a right-hander at Oracle Park. 

Bart has as strong an opposite-field approach as you'll see from a young hitter, and he's not afraid of the ballpark, which generally favors right-handers who pull the ball. When he's up here, you're going to see a few of those rare right-handed-homers into the arcade. 

That's the future. Here's the present, and his single:

--- The news is all good on the health front. Brandon Belt was out of his walking boot and took some swings. Tony Watson threw a second live BP session and Kapler said he's "progressing towards being ready for us" next week against the Dodgers. Jarlin Garcia, who has been on the IL for undisclosed reasons, should be back in camp tomorrow. Garcia was having a huge spring and would be a key lefty in the bullpen if ready. There is nothing new on Billy Hamilton, though. 

--- The Giants added outfielder Jose Siri to their player pool. The 24-year-old is a former Reds prospect the Giants picked up earlier this year, in part because hitting coach Donnie Ecker -- formerly with the Reds -- liked his potential. "He was a guy with a high ceiling for the Reds and a prospect there with tools and athleticism and power," Kapler said. 

[RELATED: As Puig signs with Braves, Giants stay focused on next wave]

--- Every day there's a new thing you notice about a park with no fans. Today the media could clearly make out the conversations on the infield, which were all happening in Spanish for Team Orange. Wilmer Flores (Venezuela), Donovan Solano (Colombia) and Mauricio Dubon (Honduras) were at first, second and third, with Cueto (Dominican Republic) pitching to Chad Tromp (Aruba). Evan Longoria was at third, but seemed to be following along. It was pretty cool to watch.

Kapler mentioned earlier this week that one advantage Tromp has over the other catchers is his ability to more easily communicate with the team's Spanish-speaking pitchers. Cueto was followed on the mound by Wandy Peralta, who is also from the Dominican Republic. 

Giants forgoing Yasiel Puig sweepstakes has team focusing on next wave

Giants forgoing Yasiel Puig sweepstakes has team focusing on next wave

A few minutes after word leaked that Yasiel Puig will sign with the Braves, a hitting group took the field at Oracle Park that showed exactly why he wasn't necessary in San Francisco this year. 

Mike Yastrzemski took his swings with Darin Ruf, who has been a camp revelation and is being counted on to fill the role of right-handed masher in the lineup this season. Yastrzemski, though, is the one who really is indicative of why the Giants are keeping it in-house as the season approaches. 

The Giants did something simple with Yastrzemski last year. They gave him a chance. 

Yastrzemski, 107 games and 21 homers later, might now be Farhan Zaidi's best big leaguer, and the hope with the front office is that the 2019 discovery is just the start. 

Yastrzemski is likely to be an everyday player for Gabe Kapler, and the Giants are hopeful that Jaylin Davis, 26, joins him. Mauricio Dubon, 25, looks headed for a meaty role in the outfield, too, and 27-year-old Austin Slater is going to get another look. The staff also likes Joe McCarthy, a 26-year-old who was acquired at the deadline last year and boasts a .376 OBP in the minors. 

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Much of the attention over the last two weeks has been on the younger kids, the Lucianos, Toribios and Canarios of the organization. But the Giants have a slightly older class of hitters, primarily outfielders, who are looking to prove they're part of the future, too, and they don't have a Triple-A season to get them ready. Every at-bat given to a free-agent outfielder is one taken away from Davis or Slater or maybe Dubon. 

Of course, the Giants aren't just here to develop players. They hope to compete this season, and Puig -- for all the headaches he brings -- is a proven right fielder. He is no longer, however, a proven star. Puig's OPS+ last year was a league-average 100 and he has just one three-WAR season since 2014. He was not going to be a game-changer for the Giants, and realistically, there's nobody out there who can change their fate too much now that Buster Posey has opted out. 

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This season is what it is, but the Giants do honestly look headed for a much brighter future. The teenagers are coming fast, and Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop should arrive in the outfield in the next year or two. The hope is that when they do, Yastrzemski has company in the lineup, that a Davis or Dubon or Slater has locked down a permanent role. 

As the Giants proved last year, the only way to find those guys is to give them a shot, give them some "runway" to succeed or fail, as Zaidi has said many times in his two years here. That wasn't going to happen with another veteran joining the group nine days before the opener.