As he approached reporters waiting for him in the Tempe Diablo Stadium stands Tuesday morning, Angels manager Joe Maddon took a quick glance at the distance between himself and media members and smiled.
“Can you guys get the tape measure out, please?” he said facetiously.
It was the first day of MLB’s new policy, enacted Monday in response to the spread of the coronavirus. For the foreseeable future, reporters will not be permitted to enter clubhouses to speak with players and coaches. They will engage with on-field team personnel in open spaces with at least six feet separating them.
Some teams used ropes to cordon off the space from which players and coaches would speak.
Angels media relations staffers picked a natural barrier — the outer wall of the stadium stands in right field — to serve as the buffer. So Maddon stood on the dirt on the other side of that wall to take questions Tuesday.
Maddon, 66, poked fun at the procedure, but he did not downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.
“All we know is that we need to cooperate right now, be mindful, be vigilant,” he said. “And, again, if we’re just the litmus test for the next time something like this occurs, in order to be able to be better prepared, I understand that too. When you’ve got kids and you’ve got grandkids, it matters.”
The question the league now faces is what comes next?
Major League Baseball decided Monday it would not call off remaining spring training games or postpone the start of the regular season. But the rapidly evolving situation — scientists revealed Monday that the number of coronavirus cases has been under-reported — could force a different ruling.
The league could try to ban fans from attending games. It did so in April 2015, when the death of Freddie Gray, who was in the custody of police, ignited riots in Baltimore during a series between the Orioles and Chicago White Sox. Two games were postponed, but the third game was played in an empty stadium.
“It’s horrible,” said Maddon when asked what it would be like to play with no fans watching. “When it happened a couple years ago in Baltimore, the one thing that illustrated to me was how important the fans are to our game. As performers, playing in front of an empty house, it’s very difficult to play at the level you’re required to play at. Some may disagree by saying that you’re compensated well; you should be able to do it regardless. … How do you extract the same performance? The incentive of performing or pleasing whoever is there to watch it, it’s just different.”
New Angels starter Dylan Bundy was in the Orioles organization during the Baltimore riots. Although he was away from the team at the time, he heard from teammates that playing in an empty stadium was awkward.
“[They] could hear the announcers talking during the game,” Bundy said. “They kind of enjoyed it — they would throw balls up in the stands and nobody was there.”
Postponing the beginning of the season, which is scheduled to open March 26, might be more palatable to those within the sport than playing in front of a phantom crowd. Not that the prospect of participating in an elongated spring training is more appealing.
“That would not be cool,” Bundy said.
Maddon figures if the league imposes a delay, teams would resort to intrasquad scrimmaging. They’d switch into maintenance mode, making sure players stay healthy and in shape as they awaited a new start date.
“That’d be a very boring process,” Maddon said. “It would be one that’d be tedious. And you would have to be very creative, almost like an instructional league, to keep the guys engaged.”
Left-hander Dillon Peters sprained his ankle coming down clubhouse stairs after his start against the Kansas City Royals on Friday. He was scheduled to pitch again Wednesday but was pushed back. The injury should not affect Peters’ availability to begin the regular season. . . . Mike Trout has taken to scaring Angels staffers with a plastic snake. On Tuesday, he placed the toy at the feet of an unsuspecting trainer during morning workouts. The trainer screamed when he saw it.