Players return to COVID-19 protocols as spring training opens

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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One year later, players and managers say they have a better understanding of what it takes to play baseball through a pandemic.

Pitchers and catchers around the game reported to spring training Wednesday saying they appreciate what’s at stake as they try to make sure the season starts on time. The protocols have been tightened even further from what they experienced during the abbreviated 2020 season.

“We’ve all gone through a year of this, of living through this,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “And so I think we’re a little, much better equipped of how to handle ourselves, how to conduct ourselves, how to make good use of our time.”

New standards agreed to by Major League Baseball and the players’ association require players, staffers and other team personnel to wear electronic tracing wristbands for ballpark access. Players underwent a five-day at-home quarantine before reporting, with exceptions for essential activities and approved outdoor workouts and exercise.

They’ll need to stay in their living quarters throughout spring training except for baseball activities, medical care, grocery shopping, takeout food pickups and outdoor physical activity. Outdoor dining will only be allowed if they get permission beforehand.

“Between the players’ union and MLB, the agreement I think is pretty rock-solid when it comes to player safety, staff safety,” Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito said Tuesday. “There’s going to be a few things that are a little more, what’s the word for it, given more importance. I think some of the workouts are going to be in smaller groups, a lot more on point with mask wearing and things like that. I don’t think it will affect our work too much. We’ll certainly be able to get done what we need to get done.”

But the restrictions will make it more challenging to get ready for the season.

Catcher James McCann faces hurdles this spring trying to bond with an entirely new pitching staff after signing a $40 million, four-year deal with New York Mets. Normally, the veteran backstop would invite pitchers to dinner, set up play dates for their kids, go out and grab a drink – anything to help develop those relationships.

Forget the off-field meetups. Under MLB’s protocols, even getting together at the team’s Florida complex is more difficult. Gathering in places like the video room – usually a convenient spot for 3-4 players to meet – is a no-no.

“Nobody likes to wear a mask and sit and talk 6 feet away from each other,” McCann said. “A lot of different things I guess we took for granted.”

MLB is hoping to have a full season after playing a 60-game schedule last year that included no fans in the stands until the postseason. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals both dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks that resulted in multiple postponements.

“We’re the lucky sport to have 162 games, but with that obviously comes a lot of thoughtfulness and dedication and commitment,” new Marlins general manager Kim Ng said. “To play this game, you have to be absolutely committed, especially this team with them going through what they went through last year. People understand how it can decimate.”

Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez battled COVID-19 last summer and says he wasn’t the same the rest of the season.

“After that, I was not comfortable with my body,” said Martinez, who added that he feels great now.

Oakland right-hander Frankie Montas was quarantining at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Wednesday with COVID-19. Manager Bob Melvin said Montas is “several days into it” after testing positive prior to reporting day.

Two other players were added to the COVID-19-related injured list Wednesday, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve tested positive: Boston Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki and Chicago Cubs left-hander Kyle Ryan.

One of the first things Cardinals president John Mozeliak did upon arriving in Jupiter, Florida, was to request a list from the medical staff of players and coaches who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

Mozeliak believes knowing which players already have at least some measure of protection from the coronavirus can help in preventing an outbreak during spring training.

“I believe we had about 15 or 18 people with antibodies in this camp,” Mozeliak said, “so that was encouraging.”

Mozeliak also expressed hope that some staff and players could begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine by opening day.

“But I certainly understand, collectively, you’re dealing with a pretty healthy group of young people,” he said, “and when you’re looking across our country, there are people more deserving of that opportunity than this group. But clearly if you were vaccinated, it would ease up a lot of the protocols we have in a sense of where you can go and where you can’t.”

For now, players say they are ready to follow the protocols while looking forward to the day they’re playing in full stadiums again.

“Thankful it’s going to be, not quite normal, but closer to it,” Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner said. “I think we’re on the path back to that, so hopefully it all happens sooner rather than later.”

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.