Why MLB should fear Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy's bout with COVID-19

Why MLB should fear Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy's bout with COVID-19

In his worst moments, he wanted no part of a baseball season this summer. Not for 60 games. Not for 60 minutes.

“When you’re in the middle of something like that,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said, “there were times I was like, ‘There’s no way I want to go back. There’s no way I want to put myself in this situation again.’ “

But two weeks clear of a harrowing, monthlong case of COVID-19, Hottovy spoke about it Wednesday from Wrigley Field, where he plans to be “all in” for his pitchers as MLB tries to navigate the next 3 1/2 months healthy enough and intact enough to conclude a short baseball season — especially motivated, he said, “to be someone they can use as a resource throughout this whole process.”

As personal and emotional as Hottovy’s description was of an ordeal that included a trip to the hospital and feelings of depression, it also offered a harsh glimpse into just how daunting a task baseball faces as it tries to conduct a three-week Summer Camp, two-month “season” and weeks of playoffs.

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“There’s going to be challenges ahead of us,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said earlier this week. “You’d have to be naive to think there won’t be moments of difficulty.”

Difficulty? Hottovy, 38, is a recent major league pitcher in athletic shape with no pre-existing conditions to suggest he would have had such a severe reaction to the coronavirus — a reaction that included six consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures, viral pneumonia, painful, sleepless nights and continual testing that didn’t produce a negative until the 30th day after showing symptoms.

In an emotional Zoom conference with writers, Hottovy emphasized the message he hopes people will hear from his experience: that this highly contagious virus is so unpredictable that it’s foolish to assume it won’t hit you hard — or even become deadly — just because you’re young and healthy, or even a professional athlete.

“No one is immune,” said Hottovy, who “masked up” and wore gloves the few times he left his house and isn’t sure where he contracted the virus. “You hear a lot of the stories out there that, ‘Hey, they’re professional athletes, they’re in great shape; if they get it they’ll be fine, they won’t die.’ The rhetoric is always 'They’re going to be fine; they’re not going to die.'”

Those percentages were in Hottovy’s favor as someone in close to the lowest risk group for severe symptoms.

“It obviously affects people differently,” he said, “and if my story and my journey through this helps one person realize just how severe this can get, and if that saves one life, then I want my story to be heard.”

Even for those tempted to downplay Hottovy’s experience or continue to assume athletes are somehow exempt from dangerous symptoms or death, “people live with family members that are not in the same shape as them,” he said, “potentially high-risk individuals. What we have to wrestle with every day is not only keeping ourselves safe and our team safe but also what we can do to keep our family safe.”

Hottovy, who said his wife and two small children remain virus-free “by grace of God,” kept up with regular Zoom sessions with Cubs pitchers through much of his illness, a process he said he hopes was at least instructive for what lies ahead when players reconvene Friday as a full team for the first time since March.

MORE: How Cubs' Tommy Hottovy kept his family safe while battling COVID-19

“It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “But it’s something that I think we’ve all signed up for, and in my case, I want to be here for these guys. I didn’t want to opt out just because I had it once. Obviously, I don’t want to get it again. I don’t want to go through what I went through again. But I want to be here for them.

“I want to be able to answer those questions and be accessible.”

That goes for what he and his wife can share with families of players and staff, too, he said.

But he can’t answer many of the questions — including what long-term effects might be in store for him, or even being sure just how much immunity he has and if the virus can come back.

He said he lost 18 pounds while he was sick, still deals with shortness of breath and estimates he’s at about 80 percent of normal strength.

But as the Cubs and the rest of baseball await results of just the first league-wide round of intake testing, nobody knows what level of positive tests they’ll face. Never mind how many players they can keep healthy long enough to play any games at all, much less everything they have scheduled.

And the big question that hangs over the whole thing: Should they — or any sport — even be trying this?

If Hottovy’s experience suggests anything, it’s just how legitimate that question is.

It already was being asked before the dramatic spikes recently in rates of cases in states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California — home to a significant percentage of players and to one-third of MLB teams.

Even if we allow ourselves the generous assumption that the virus won’t kill anyone involved in this effort, a COVID-19 case similar to Hottovy’s seems at least to have a good chance of ending a player’s season on the spot — something many might not have assumed before hearing him Wednesday.

But Hottovy isn’t in favor of shutting it down. He said the health protocols in place offer a “best chance” to thread the needle required to pull it off.

And he said he believes in the value to society of having sports start up again.

“But at the same [time], one little misstep, one little contact situation by one person can derail an entire industry,” he said. “I’m not saying it could be that extreme … but all it takes is for one person to walk by somebody and get coughed on, sneezed on or go out to a local place and you’re around somebody.

“And the next thing you know, you lose two or three key guys and you’re looking at a tough situation. I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and I do want to make sure we do everything we can to bring baseball back to the people and to the fans.

“But we really have to take care of ourselves and take care of each other and hold each other accountable or it could easily get derailed.”


Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?


Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?

With the Cardinals being shutdown by MLB for a COVID-19 outbreak in the organization, the Cubs had an impromptu four days off after stringing together one of the best records in baseball so far. Will having the days off help or hurt them going forward?

David Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer discuss the Cubs' impromptu weekend off, Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking protocol and going out in Chicago, and a 'what if' scenario that could have changed the Cubs getting Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

(1:20) - Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking safety protocol to go out in Chicago

(7:09) - Cubs get four days off due to the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak

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(9:30) - Is David Ross following in the steps of Joe Maddon with some of his methods?

(16:00) - How will MLB fix the missing games that teams will have at the end of the season?

(18:40) - Cubs wanted Andrew Miller initially, not Aroldis Chapman in 2016

Listen here or below.

Cubs Talk Podcast




Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

A peppy voice shouted from offscreen, drawing Jason Kipnis’ attention away from the pregame Zoom setup in front of him. Kipnis chucked as he spotted Mike Napoli, his former Indians teammate and current Cubs quality assurance coach.

“Ask this guy about 2016,” Kipnis said to the reporters on Zoom as Napoli bobbed into frame.

“It was the greatest year of our lives,” Napoli shouted.

At least Kipnis had someone with him who knew what it was like to lose to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

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Kipnis returned to Progressive Field on Tuesday, for the first time since he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in February. In the Cubs’ 7-1 win against the Indians on Tuesday, Kipnis hit a double and scored a run on a wild pitch. It was his first time in a decade-long career facing Cleveland.

The Indians had drafted Kipnis in 2009. He’d made his major league debut with the club two years later. And he spent nine seasons in Cleveland.

A “homey vibe” hit him as the Cubs touched down in the airport Tuesday and drove to their hotel. Familiar views greeted him.

What was new was walking to the ballpark from the hotel, going through a different entrance.

“I'm actually being steered to probably a few hallways I didn't know existed,” Kipnis said.

He’d been to the visiting clubhouse before but never to the batting cages or weight room. He was seeing a new side of a building that he’d called home for so many years.

Plus, he was doing it in Cubbie blue. One of his most agonizing experiences at Progressive Field had come at the hands of the Cubs. His current teammates had made up the young core of that 2016 World Series Cubs team.

“I’ve already had Rizzo walking me through, ‘I celebrated here, I celebrated here,’" Kipnis said before the game. "I’m like, ‘Thanks, buddy. I get it.'”

Kipnis said there was never a real path for him to return to the Indians for this season.  Asked if the option was closed off on his end or the teams’, he said, “My phone never rang, I’ll put it that way.”

Instead Kipnis, a Northbrook native, joined his hometown team. Over the summer, Kipnis posted on Twitter that being a Cub was still a “mindf*ck” at times.

When he and the Indians lost World Series Game 7 at home, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, 99 percent of Kipnis was “absolutely crushed.”

But he said one percent could “look back at the field the last second be like, ‘Hey, at least it's the Cubs.’

If the Indians were going to lose, at least it was to a team with a 108-year World Series drought.

Kipnis likens his feelings about playing for his hometown team this year to that ratio. He’s overwhelmingly excited about representing Chicago and playing for his friends and family. One percent of him aches every time he sees the 2016 banners or World Series highlights, neither of which he can escape in Chicago.

“I have to keep reliving it,” Kipnis said. “… It sucks, but it was a fun time in ’16, and I don’t regret anything about it”

This year has been Kipnis’ first experience switching teams. He’s been locked in a position battle at second base with Nico Hoerner and has been efficient in limited at-bats. In seven games, Kipnis is batting .368, with five extra-base hits. He kept the ball from his first home run as a Cub.

“When you get back into that hunter mentality, it's fun,” Kipnis said, “because then you push yourself to stay at it. You might not feel great some days, and you normally might have taken a day off or something to rest the body, but now you just find a way to get something productive done that day.

“And I think especially coming here in Chicago, where I know now I have even more family and friends watching games, and friends of friends, everything, it's been like a little bit more motivation to stay on top of myself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that Kipnis would get to play his former team this season. Regular season schedules became regional, so the NL Central Cubs play the AL Central Indians four times this year.

But the pandemic also ensured that Kipnis wouldn’t be able to greet fans in person, or his former teammates and coaches how he’d like to – some of them with “bull-rush” hugs.

“I've invaded these guys personal spaces for about nine years,” Kipnis said. “I think I can take a day off from giving them a hug.”

The Indians played a tribute video for Kipnis before the game. Players and staff members applauded him. Kipnis stepped out and waved his hat at the empty stands.

Like much of this season, Kipnis’ return wasn’t anything like he could have imagined when he put pen to paper back in February. But at least publicly, you won’t hear any complaints from Kipnis.

“It's been such a fun ride here so far,” he said.