At the height of Tommy Hottovy’s illness, Cubs manager David Ross had to take over the pitching coach’s duties on his regular video conference with pitchers.
“When he spoke, he couldn’t get two words out without coughing,” Ross recalled Friday, before the Cubs’ first day of Summer Camp.
Hottovy, 38, battled the novel coronavirus for a month, while baseball was still on hold due to the pandemic. He finally got his first negative test back a few weeks ago. Hottovy was upfront about his condition with the pitchers, and on Friday Ross said he wanted Hottovy to speak in a team meeting.
“Just because he is such a powerful resource,” Ross said. “… He’ll be a god guy to go to if guys have questions.”
Hottovy’s story includes a fever that kept him awake from midnight to 6am every night, viral pneumonia that required breathing treatments, a trip to the hospital that he packed a bag for in case he had to spend the night.
Hottovy was isolated from his family for a month, sequestered to a spare bedroom their house, and he still felt guilty for putting them at risk. Those precautions kept his wife and two young children from contracting the virus from him.
“It’s very scary, and it’s awesome for him to share his story with us,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of people unfortunately who have gotten this and were not able to tell their story, were not able to see their families for one last time. And it’s unfortunate. You can’t take days for granted.”
Utility man Ian Happ stayed in Arizona after MLB shut down Spring training in March. He lived with Cubs reliver Dakota Mekkes during that time.
“Dakota would be on the pitchers calls,” Happ said, “so you kind of got to walk the journey with Tommy a little bit and check in on him as he was going through it. And I think his experience, his story, it’s incredible. Not testing negative for 30 days and the impact that had on his family and everyone around him, I think it really puts it into perspective.
“It tells guys how serious this is and how cautious we need to be. Not just for ourselves, but for our teammates, their families and for everybody who’s working hard to be here for us.”
As far as COVID-19 testing goes, the Cubs opened Summer Camp on an encouraging note. League protocol restricts Ross from saying if any Cubs have tested positive, but he did say he expected all players who were scheduled to report Friday would be in camp. Two staff members did recently test positive at home and were expected to miss the beginning of camp, general manager Jed Hoyer announced earlier this week.
League-wide, only 1.2 percent of players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of intake screening, including 31 players. The league’s 101-page 2020 Operations Manual is designed to keep that number low. But the health and safety protocols are only as good as the clubs’ compliance.
“Every single person in the organization,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, “every player, ever staff member, everyone in uniform, out of uniform, we all have to make great decisions, exercise great disciple, hold each other accountable, collaborate, go into it with an open mind and exercise real personal and collective responsibility.”
If that message wasn’t already clear, Hottovy’s experience put it into sharp focus.
As the Cubs on Friday opened their second shot at a first impression this season, they were at full strength — minus one dishwashing mishap. And to hear the manager talk, they might be ready to play games as quickly as anyone in baseball.
Manager David Ross, who let the news slip during a Zoom session with reporters that all the Cubs players tested negative for COVID-19 during intake screening, already has his replacement pool in place for starter Jose Quintana (badly cut thumb/dishwashing), plans the team’s first intrasquad game Saturday and would seem to have very few job battles open in this three-week training camp.
“Thankfully, we’ve had a group that stayed ready,” Ross said, “and taking live batting practice, and [pitchers] have been throwing live bullpens and followed the protocols that our coaches have set out.
“All of them look like they’re in phenomenal shape.”
Spoken like every manager on every first day of spring training. Except it was July, in Chicago, with three anxious weeks between now and the scheduled openers of a 60-game sprint of a would-be baseball season.
So, strap on the mask. Snap on the latex gloves.
And count the Cubs’ blessings as things open up:
— Aside from left-hander Quintana, the fourth starter whose season is in doubt as the Cubs await the progress in a few weeks of the surgically repaired nerve in his thumb, the Cubs expect to have everybody else scheduled to be in camp available for workouts, Ross said. This while teams such as the Phillies (four COVID-19 cases) and the Angels (nine inactive for undisclosed reasons) deal with more severe roster losses from the outset.
—Even Quintana’s loss has already, presumably, been replaced by sixth-man Alec Mills — whom Ross has “a ton of confidence in” — with right-handers Colin Rea, Adbert Alzolay and Jharel Cotton in the wings as rotation depth and candidates to fill Mills’ swingman/long role in the bullpen.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good reports back from the work that Colin Rea’s put in,” Ross said. “Jharel Cotton is a huge pickup, especially in this shortened season — and not having a lot of innings under his belt the last couple of years. And he feels really good and has stayed sharp. So, we’ve got some good options to fill that void internally that I have extreme confidence in.”
As for looking for outside help with Quintana down, Ross called that a “wait and see” proposition for front office bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. “Jed and Theo are working hard on all areas of that.”
—Did somebody say job battles? When last they trod the diamond in March, the Cubs essentially had only a few bullpen spots, the center field mix (Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ or a combination of both) and second base (Jason Kipnis and/or Nico Hoerner) to figure out. But with a 30-man roster to start the short season, all four of those position players should not only be on the roster but also be in position to play significant roles. And the additional spots for pitchers figures to make some of the bullpen calls less fraught.
“We’ve got a little more leeway for some [roster] expansion,” Ross said. “But those pieces are going to be important, and they’re going to have value when they are on this team. So, you’ve still got to look at them through the same lens in putting the best group that you can together.”
—Did somebody say they’ve got to get a look at guys in competitive situations? Ross said enough pitchers have stayed on top of their throwing programs that his starters are ready to throw three innings out of the chute. Consequently, intrasquad games start Saturday, though Ross is ready to employ pitch limits and hamstring-forgiving guidelines for base running the first several days.
Still, as past Cubs managers have often learned the hard way, Ross seems to understand this will be no push-button operation, especially under these trying circumstances over these next few one-day-at-a-time weeks.
“It’s not something we can map out and say this is how we’re going to run things,” Ross said. “We’re going to take feedback from the players and when we can push them a little bit harder, we’re going to push them, and when we feel like we’ve got to back off, we’ll slow things down a little bit.
“Everything we’re having to do now is unique.”