Updated, 6:10 p.m.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — One by one, Phillies players, coaches and staff members walked out of Spectrum Field and headed to their cars on Friday morning. Some carried red, team-issued equipment bags. One pitcher carried his glove and a few baseballs. Another carried a skateboard under his arm. Third base coach Dusty Wathan carried a fishing pole.
On this warm and sunny Florida day, the Phillies were supposed to host the Detroit Tigers as the countdown to opening day trickled to less than two weeks. Instead, the Phillies headed out for some unexpected time off as club, league and union officials continued to formulate a plan of how to proceed in the wake of Major League Baseball's decision to suspend spring training and push back opening day at least two weeks because of the worldwide coronavirus health crisis.
"We're all just kind of waiting," Rob Thomson, the team's bench coach, said. "Major League Baseball, everybody, is taking precautions and rightly so."
The wait for guidance wasn't long.
Later on Friday, MLB instructed clubs to "encourage" players to leave spring training sites. By nightfall, a number of Phillies had begun booking travel to their hometowns. Players and team officials are expected to meet one more time Saturday morning before getting out of town.
It's not clear when baseball will resume official operations, but it's likely that opening day, which had been scheduled for March 26, will end up being pushed back more than the originally planned two weeks.
While spring training camps are officially closed, some players — particularly those rehabilitating injuries — will continue to work out at team facilities. It's a situation similar to the month of January when some players report early and work out on their own.
"It's a hugely challenging environment," Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said earlier Friday. "We're prioritizing what we should prioritize, the safety of our citizens and making baseball secondary. It's a responsible thing to do until we have a clear idea of where this is going."
Thomson and Price are both faced with challenges as they wait to hear when the season will begin. Thomson, who is known to arrive at the ballpark as early as 3 a.m. — his record is 2:36 a.m. on February 22, the day of the Grapefruit League opener — coordinates all on-field activities and schedules during spring training. Price is responsible for not only instructing pitchers but building their endurance through carefully planned workload progressions.
"A lot of people have done a lot of work getting prepared and then ramping into the last couple of weeks of spring training getting ready for the season," Thomson said. "So now you've got to back down and not start over, but you just have to monitor the workload so they're not doing too much. Now we have to revamp it because we have two more weeks of spring training, essentially."
Two weeks before opening day, starting pitchers are typically approaching 75 or more pitches in an outing with an eye toward getting near 100 before camp breaks. Pitchers all around baseball now have to be backed off of this progression without completely shutting down.
"The first thing is we have to figure out what protocol is going to be," Price said. "Is it realistic that the season will start two weeks later or are we just going to reassess at that time? I think it's going to be in a constant state of flux until we see what the trend is with this COVID-19.
"It's inconvenient but we're dealing with a serious issue here. Let's put everything else aside and say we're just talking about baseball, it's imperfect but not something that we can't work our way through. Right now, we don't really have a true opening day and until then, we have no idea if there's going to be significant breaks between now and the first day of the season or if we can actually start to target an exact date. Once we know an exact date, we'll talk more accurately about the challenges that await us."
During their downtime away from the ballpark, pitchers will stay limber. Once the "new" opening day comes into focus, the Phillies could conduct a second spring training in Clearwater or perhaps even in Philadelphia.
"Right now, we don't know what the recipe is because we really don't have an opening day," Price said. "Once we have an opening day, we'll have a better understanding of what we're going to need to do. But at this point in time, we're going to keep the guys in shape until we have a little bit more of a resolution with this."