It was a spring training for the ages, one that will be talked about for years to come. An infectious virus has thrown a curve ball so wicked and deadly that it has made the knees of Major League Baseball buckle. COVID-19 has upended America’s National Pastime.
Baseball’s annual six-week ritual began in mid-February and ended abruptly a month later because of the coronavirus that has impacted all major sports as well as all of us. It is unprecedented.
On a positive note for us Rangers fans, the team went 12-8 in Cactus League play –– half a game behind the leading Oakland A’s and San Diego Padres –– when the season was suspended.
Although spring training has ended and the start of the baseball season is in limbo, let’s talk about spring training.
It has always been my belief that the best cure for the winter blues is to head to the Arizona desert for some baseball. That is exactly what I did. For the third straight year, I went to the Texas Rangers’ spring training camp in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise to take a look at the team.
While waiting to board the plane at DFW Airport, I glimpsed at the television monitors that were airing stories about Seattle officials announcing sweeping changes to address the coronavirus outbreak in the area after several people had tested positive for the virus. I wondered if it would impact the Rangers’ opening series in Seattle against the Mariners, March 26-29.
While a cause for concern, I did not let the news dampen the excitement that going to spring training brings. I love it. It’s a time for much optimism among players, coaches, and fans, more so this year since the team will now be playing their home games in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled $1.2 billion stadium.
It’s not the only new facility the Rangers have. In February, Rangers officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating Rangers Village. The 68,280-square-foot, multi-story facility includes housing for as many as 180 Texas Rangers organizational players and staff as well as classrooms and meeting space. It will be used throughout the year for spring training, extended spring, Arizona rookie league, instructional league, and other baseball programs.
Arriving at the Rangers’ spring training facility, voted by USA Today as the No. 1 spring training stadium in Arizona, I went to the press office to pick up my media credentials. On my way to the media room, I passed by the numerous batting cages and watched several players take early B.P. I then went inside the 37,000-square-foot clubhouse that has 75 lockers, a team kitchen, weight and training facilities, a media room, and administrative offices as well as a separate dressing room for the Minor League players. As I entered the Major League locker room, I checked the bulletin board to see that day’s starting lineup. Then I visited with several of the players who welcomed me to Surprise.
I congratulated pitcher Jose LeClerc on the birth of his daughter last month. Later I talked with catcher Robinson Chirinos, who is happy to be back with the club after spending the 2019 season with the Houston Astros. I asked him about his trip to his hometown in Venezuela earlier this year, and he’s grateful that all went well.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus greeted me with his ever ever-present smile and his usual “Todo bien?” question. It’s hard to believe he’s beginning his 12th season with the Rangers. I remember interviewing him when he was a rookie.
Players seemed to be enjoying themselves, listening to music or relaxing. From across the room, pitcher Jesse Chavez was holding a football and noticed manager Chris Woodward walking toward the cafeteria. Chavez shouted, “Woody!” before throwing him a bullet. The manager caught the football, put it under his arm, and extended his right hand as if to stiff-arm anybody who came near.
The Rangers skipper later addressed reporters in the media room, telling them he expects the team to be very competitive this year. “We have some really good players on our team,” he said. “The way our younger guys have been playing is really remarkable.”
One of the younger guys not playing is catcher Jose Treviño, who has suffered a hairline fracture in his right index finger. Still a rookie, Treviño played 40 games with the team last year, impressing the Rangers with his play both on defense and offense. He told me his finger is better and that he is anxious to resume play.
During the week I was there, the weather was great and everything appeared to be routine as more than 700 players (Major and Minor Leaguers) worked out on the six practice fields, pitching mounds, batting cages, and the flat field used for wind sprints and calisthenics. The players mingled with fans, signed autographs, and posed for photos.
There was much excitement as the Rangers had won five games in a row. The first game I saw was Rangers/Rockies, which the Rangers won 7-4 for their sixth consecutive win. One thing about spring training games is that the team’s top players and starters play only a few innings before being replaced by rookies, prospects, and those recovering from injuries, like pitcher Taylor Hearn.
The 6’5’’ southpaw was shut down after his Major League debut last year because of elbow issues. Hearn said he is now ready for a comeback.
I observed him talking at length with veteran pitcher Edinson Volquez, who advised the young pitcher not to be discouraged. “Just continue to persevere and work hard,” Volquez told him. “It’s the little things that can make a difference. You have the talent, so just trust in yourself and your stuff.”
Hearn took that advice seriously when he took the mound two days later against the Milwaukee Brewers, pitching two innings and striking out three batters.
One good thing about spring training in Arizona is that all Cactus League teams are within 40 miles of one another, so there are no hour-long trips.
The Rangers traveled to nearby Peoria to face the San Diego Padres under new manager Jayce Tingler, who was a Rangers coach last year. Prior to the game, many of the Rangers players and coaches visited with Tingler, who was all set to manage a winter team in the Dominican Republic when he got the call from the Padres offering him the job.
During that game, which the Rangers lost 4-3, Rangers Spanish broadcaster Eleno Ornelas and I decided to sit in the stands rather than in the press box so we could visit and talk with Rangers fans.
We sat next to former Texas Congressman Alan Steelman, a long-time Rangers fan who once was a star first baseman at Baylor University. He talked about being at the first Rangers game at Arlington Stadium in 1972. He also mentioned that he had donned a Texas Rangers uniform numerous times while a member of Congress when he played in the annual Congressional baseball game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium that featured the Republicans against the Democrats.
I told him that I remembered attending those games when I worked as a press secretary for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. It was great talking with him and reminiscing about our Capitol Hill days decades ago during the Nixon and Ford administrations. “It was a lot different then,” he said about Congress.
The following day, the Rangers bounced back from their Padres defeat by beating the Milwaukee Brewers 11-2 in Phoenix only to be shut out by Oakland 5-0 the following day in Surprise.
The manager’s media availability that morning was delayed because players and coaches were asked to see a video put together by Major League Baseball regarding the coronavirus. The video gave an overview of the COVID-19 outbreak and how to prevent yourself from getting it.
The following day, the clubhouse again opened late because of Sunday chapel service followed by a meeting with representatives of the Major League Baseball Players Association who provided a state of the union briefing to the players.
Then it was out to the practice fields before playing the National League Western Division Champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a sellout crowd at the 10,714-seat ballpark, which the Rangers share with the Kansas City Royals.
Prior to the game, Woodward talked about his former team, where he spent three years as the third base coach. “Although I will enjoy beating them, I have a lot of respect for the players and the organization,” he said. “It is because of them that I am here today.”
Unbeknownst to him, he would see only one inning of the game. In the bottom of the first, left-fielder Willie Calhoun was hit in the face by a 95-mile-per-hour Julio Urias fastball, fracturing his jaw. Calhoun was airlifted to a Phoenix hospital after being carted off the field.
Woodward left the managing to bench coach Don Wakamatsu and headed to the hospital to be with his player. “There was really no other option,” Woodward said about leaving the game and going to the hospital. “I do care about the game, but all my focus was on the player. It deeply affected me knowing how much Willie has done and how hard he’s worked. I got pretty emotional.”
Also going to the hospital to be with Willie were his parents, who had come in from California the night before.
The Rangers went on to win the game 9-8, coming back from a 7-0 deficit.
Earlier in the week, I had talked to Calhoun and joked that I had picked him to be the one to hit the first home run at Globe Life Field. He smiled and said, “It’s usually someone that you least expect.”
I replied, “That would be you.”
Both Woodward and General Manager Jon Daniels provided an update on Calhoun’s condition the following day, saying he had suffered a fractured jaw and would be undergoing surgery. The manager went on to say that pitcher Urias, a former teammate of Calhoun’s in the Minor Leagues, had reached out to Willie and wished him well.
“It certainly was not intentional,” Woodward said.
Later Daniels said that all seemed to be going well for Calhoun. “Tests ruled out neck or brain injury,” he said.
Woodward said the Rangers’ 2019 rookie of year, Nick Solak, will replace Calhoun at left field. The next morning, I saw Solak in the batting cage taking numerous swings under the tutelage of hitting coach Luis Ortiz, who told Solak to “follow the ball with the bat.”
With spring training at the midway point, Woodward feels the team is in a good place. “There’s a belief we’re going to do something real special,” he said. “I am pleased to see the commitment of our guys. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has made pretty significant adjustments and is making a good case to be on the roster. His versatility is huge.”
The skipper also said that second baseman Roughned Odor is having a good spring. “He’s done a ton of work,” Woodward said. “He’s committed himself and put in a lot of time and effort. I’m really proud of him.”
Later that day came the Major League Baseball directive that media would no longer be allowed in the clubhouse because of the ongoing coronavirus fallout. MLB determined that all media access would take place outside the clubhouse and asked players to maintain a 6-foot distance from reporters. The memo also had a number of steps for how to handle the proliferation of the virus, including a suggestion that players not take balls or pens from fans looking for autographs.
“We need to follow the rules,” Chirinos told reporters outside the clubhouse. “We’re all in this together. Fans need to understand the situation.”
New Rangers third baseman Todd Frazier, who has always enjoyed signing autographs, feels bad not doing it. “We have to take every precaution because we all have families,” he said. “I hope they don’t take it personally. Until this all goes away, we’ve got to focus on us and our health too.”
To remain fan-friendly, the Rangers are preparing signed balls and baseball cards to give to fans to avoid the exchange of pens and memorabilia between fan and player.
Returning home from spring training, I learned that the Rangers’ opening series in Seattle may be played somewhere else. Then MLB made the big announcement that Opening Day would be pushed back two weeks to April 9. But last week, at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control that there be no gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, MLB pushed back the start of the season to perhaps Memorial Day. Or further.
Such a delay most certainly will necessitate another spring training to prepare the players.
Meanwhile, the team returned home March 16. Although there are no organized workouts, some players are working out at the Texas Rangers/MLB Youth Academy in West Dallas. They may soon move their workouts to their new home.
In a conference call with media last week, Daniels reported that the players’ clubhouse and workout area at Globe Life Field will be cleaned and sanitized. “Once it is under a more controlled environment, we’ll be able to move the stuff and follow the protocol, take precautions, and monitor the cleanliness and sanitation,” he said. “Health is a priority. Baseball workouts are not.”
The general manager noted that all clubs and players are in the same predicament: “We’ll do what we can in the meantime to keep the guys active and healthy.”
With the 2020 baseball season on hiatus, injured Rangers like Calhoun and Treviño will now have more time to recuperate.
Hopefully, Calhoun will be ready to play in the opener and hit the first home run at Globe Life Field as I predicted. l
Ozzie Garza has been writing about the Texas Rangers for more than 20 years and is a frequent contributor to the Fort Worth Weekly.