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What it's like switching spots on the Cubs beat during coronavirus pandemic

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USA Today

What it's like switching spots on the Cubs beat during coronavirus pandemic

The day the offer was accepted in February, the head of the Wuchang hospital in Wuhan, China, died from the COVID-19 virus, and a cruise ship full of infected passengers remained under quarantine conditions in a port south of Tokyo.

The day the contract was signed a few weeks later, the U.S. announced a travel ban on European flights into the country, and known cases worldwide reached 118,000 — including more than 1,200 in the U.S.

The next day Major League Baseball joined the NHL and NBA in shutting down.

And this week as the coronavirus pandemic pushes health-care resources toward tipping points in Atlanta, New York and Washington, I finally, awkwardly started — from home — a new job as Cubs Insider for NBC Sports Chicago.

Dazed and bemused doesn’t begin to describe changing jobs during a pandemic — much less to cover a team that has no idea when it will play a game this year. Or if it will.

But the bigger emotions involve smallness within this moment and deep appreciation.

What will I cover? What will I write?

What will any of it matter in a few months? Tomorrow?

All I know is I’m changing jobs during a pandemic.

Others are losing jobs. And worse.

And none of us knows what’s coming next, how long it will last, how much worse it will get before it gets better, or even if baseball will be around this summer to help ease a nation’s pain, and distract from its hardships.

In my final week covering the Cubs for the Sun-Times last week, I was the last beat writer in Arizona, talking to players and staff through a locked fence, one at a time, as the few who stayed behind during the shutdown arrived each morning for informal, unscheduled workouts.

They were as confused as anyone, trying to stay in shape, stay informed and stay safe.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor, talked about being professional, keeping himself ready to do his job whenever baseball might start again.

But his mind was on his parents, wife, other family and friends, he said, as he considered the scope of the global threat that is growing especially fast in the U.S.

“It’s about being healthy,” he said. “I don’t really care about baseball right now. Do I want to be playing? Yes. Absolutely. But the health of you, the health of everyone is more important than baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer — everything.

“You see it: Everything’s shut down,” Rizzo said. “These aren’t normal times. You’re standing behind a fence right now because this is how abnormal it is.”

Normal times?

I’m still on the other side of the fence, even when it comes to the process of the job change.

NBC and the Sun-Times have done the right thing and sent staff home to work remotely, leaving empty offices.

No stopping by HR on the first day in the office to fill out paperwork or pick up a new computer, meet new co-workers, learn the new system.

Never mind stopping by the old office to turn in equipment, tie up loose ends, say a few goodbyes.

We’ve all seen the pictures of Times Square, the Las Vegas Strip and downtown Chicago in recent days.

Ghost towns.

Weird. Strange. Eerie. The usual words aren’t enough.

Because we know what’s causing it. Yet we can’t see it. And really have no idea. Not yet. Only that it’s very big, only that we are in the midst of something historically, globally significant.

And that only leaves us to hope and pray that it might be less big than we imagine.

“This isn’t about me. This is about us,” Cubs infielder David Bote said last week when asked to talk about how he’s coping.

That’s what keeps coming to mind whenever it gets tempting to complain about uncertainty involving those of us who make our livings around the sports industry, or about changing jobs during a pandemic.

I thought it would be hard leaving newspapers when it came time to make this job decision. I was a paperboy, a high school sports editor, a copy boy in Seattle, a preps writer in Fort Lauderdale and for the last 13 seasons the Cubs beat writer for one of the last two papers standing in Chicago — without question the better of the two when it comes to covering sports.

But more than anything I was one of the lucky ones. Newspapers never left me, in more than 30 years on the job. They left many of my friends and colleagues. Some of my old papers are out of business or no longer have anything to do with actual paper (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer remains a faint echo of its former self in digital-only form).

And even beyond this new opportunity with a great company, I’m still one of the lucky ones. My family and close friends are safe and well at home, so far, including my parents, brothers, nieces, in-laws and several friends who are as close as family in hard-hit Washington State.

This certainly is about all of us. It’s about staying together even as we keep our distance. It’s about patience in close quarters, respecting risks, sharing resources, staying safe, and for many of us maybe even just a little bit about keeping a mind’s eye on a warm summer afternoon at the ballpark while we work and wait for the chance to return to whatever normal looks like then.

We can’t know when they’ll open the gate and let us on the other side of the fence again. But all of us can try to be ready for that day, to stay smart and healthy, to be lucky enough to sit elbow-to-elbow again in the bleachers for a game, or the bar across the street.

I’ve got first round.

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.