WASHINGTON -- The Nationals ventured to their chartered train Sunday for a first: They were leaving Nationals Park to play a regular-season game elsewhere in 2020. This is a new challenge in a year filled with randomization.
The road is a bedeviling place in professional sports no matter the climate. Favorite places of all kinds -- restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues -- pull athletes from their hotel into the city streets. It’s standard. Among the running jokes in the NBA is players coming down with the South Beach Flu. Go to Miami the night before a game, play poorly the next, perhaps you caught it while out until 3 a.m.
For Major League Baseball in 2020, traveling has become the greatest barrier to the season’s completion. Organizations are petrified of an outbreak prompted by one person venturing into the night while on the road. Or even in the morning when visiting a cafe for breakfast.
The Nationals will first tangle with road protocols -- set both internally and by MLB -- this week in New York. A four-game series with the Mets will test their ability to sit still. Staying in the hotel is job one. A special guard was even considered in order to make it happen.
“I’m going to put [Mike] Rizzo in the lobby,” Davey Martinez said with a laugh.
That, presumably, would be an effective deterrent to anyone who stepped out of the elevator, then into the lobby, coming face-to-face with the team president’s bald head. But, the job will be handled by MLB security, which is now in the hotels of road teams to watch the coming and going of players and staff following the coronavirus outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization. The rest is up to the Nationals.
“When you go on the road, you get in a routine: your favorite places to eat breakfast, your favorite places to go get coffee,” Martinez said. “There’s going to be none of that. And, that’s going to be tough. We got to adhere to the protocols. In order to keep everybody safe, we’ve got to stay in the hotel. So there’s going to be different things that we need to do. There’s not going to be any gallivanting around the city anymore. A lot of these cities, honestly, are pretty much closed down and there’s not a whole lot going on.
“We’ve got to be smart. If we’re going to pull this off and keep everybody safe, the best thing is to stay in the hotel and chill. There’s going to be plenty of food -- from what I gather -- at the ballpark. We’ve got restaurants that are going to cook for us. We’ll have lunch, we’re going to have dinner after the game. I think now we just got to feed ourselves for breakfast. I’m hearing that the hotels are going to be open for breakfast for room service, but we’ve got to do whatever we can to stay safe.”
One issue will be the pull to see family in different places. Juan Soto has family in New York. Several players have family in the Miami area. When Martinez returns to Tampa in mid-September, his adult children already know they won’t be meeting in order to protect his safety and that of the team.
“They understand,” Martinez said. “Hopefully, when this is all over, I’ll spend a lot of time with them.”
He and Rizzo have trumpeted the same point from the start: what happens away from the field impacts everyone who goes to it. So, stay home, do your part, do not be the single lit match.
Testing negative, keeping the house in order, and playing on has both become a point of pride and competition. The Nationals enter the week with only one positive test result since play began -- that belonged to Soto, and he thought it was a false positive -- and the league’s worst offense. Without their best hitter, Washington has gone through a season-long scoring drought. Only the St. Louis Cardinals have scored fewer runs. They have also played seven fewer games because of a coronavirus outbreak in their organization.
“It's a new baseball season that we've never had before,” Rizzo said. “There's protocols in place that kind of break the routine that we've had our whole careers and our whole lives. So the team that adapts to that best and easiest and most seamlessly will have an advantage of being more comfortable playing baseball. Once the game starts, you're just playing baseball. I think that everybody kind of gets into their comfort zone, at least for the three hours during the game.”
The playing baseball portion has been more difficult than following protocols. The Nationals are a bewildering 4-7 through the jagged first two weeks of the season. They arrive in New York with Max Scherzer ready to return Tuesday. They may also recall a four-game series in Citi Field from last year. When the Nationals walked into the park, they were in a bad place. When they walked out, everything was worse.
They want to worry about the pitching matchups more than hotel entrances and exits. The league has tightened protocols since the Marlins debacle. The Nationals are even working on how to spread out their pregame meetings in conference rooms. And, maybe Martinez was on to something. In a season where cardboard cutouts have been put to use, a life-sized Rizzo with his hands on hips in the hotel lobby may just come in handy.
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