Baseball is scheduled to be back July 23 or 24. Teams have to submit 60-player rosters by Sunday afternoon. Players are to report to their home parks for “spring training” by July 1, which is this coming Wednesday. There will be a 60-game season. With no fans in the stands.
Everything is different now, and veteran Indians manager Terry Francona knows what that means.
“If you don’t run a ball out, there’s not going to be a crowd there to let you know that that’s not good enough,” Francona said in a telephone interview. “There’s no checks and balances. We have to live by what we believe in more than ever now.
“We have to furnish our own enthusiasm. Me and the coaches have talked about that a bunch. The players will take their cues from us. The one thing I’ve told players — once we start playing, what happens goes on the back of your baseball card. So it may look and sound different, but it counts.
“If we’re on top when it’s over, I don’t care if it’s a five-game season. I was a player in 1981 when we were on strike for 50 games in the middle of the season. But every game we played felt real. Everything is what you make of it.
“All I know right now is that when it starts at the end of July, we’re going to be tied for first place with four other teams. This could be pretty fun.‘'
What will not be fun is the loss of routine that is Francona’s lifeblood. The son of a big league outfielder, Francona was raised in big league clubhouses and is lost when he is not part of the major league life.
"Tito physically loves the clubhouse,'' Theo Epstein once said. "I think he loves to let go of the outside world. Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world and throws himself into the clubhouse.''
The Major League Baseball life is all about routine. It’s largely the same for players, managers, coaches, trainers, and other ancillary game-day staff. A lot of them get to the park shortly after noon for a 7 p.m. start, especially if they are on a road trip. They eat great food that’s put out by gourmet chefs. They use the weight room. They watch video of themselves and their opponents. They lounge around. They b.s. They work in the batting cage.
And they meet. There are meetings all the time. Believe it or not, the game is sometimes the quickest part of their day.
After the game, there’s more great food laid out for them (“the spread”). Then they hop on the cushy bus, and yell at the driver (”Bussie!”) to crank up the air conditioning as they ride back to their hotel, where maybe they’ll drop by the bar or enjoy a late dinner with friends.
There’ll be none of that in the baseball summer of 2020. The big-league life players and managers knew is over for this year. No getting to the park super-early. No lounging around. No food spread. No spitting. No meetings. No AC on the bus. And no hotel bar.
“Change is unsettling,‘' Francona acknowledged. “But we’ve got to do this. Nobody is more ingrained in the clubhouse culture than me. It’s been everything in my life. And I’ve been spending this week working on what I’m going to tell these guys when we come back.
“I want guys to understand that everything we believe in we really have to believe in it now. Because there’s no crowds. There’s no checks and balances for us.
“A lot of the great things that happen in a clubhouse are not planned. You’re walking down the hall to the food room and you walk into a guy or two and automatically there’s a conversation. That’s over. Nobody’s going to be comfortable not having meetings, but if it will keep our players healthy, that’s way more important.
“One thing I feel good about — I think our guys know right from wrong. This is just going to be a unique year, and whoever handles it the best is going to give themselves the best chance to win.‘'
What about the no-tobacco, no-spitting rule?
“I actually hadn’t chewed this spring anyway, so I got a little bit of a head start on it,‘' Francona said. “I haven’t chewed since last Oct. 1, so I think I’ll be OK there.”
Getting to the park five hours before game time will be an adjustment for Francona, who was known to occasionally sleep in his office at Fenway Park when he managed the Red Sox for eight seasons. He says that the new rule about leaving 90 minutes after a game won’t be a problem.
“I’m OK with that one,” he said. “I don’t usually stick around late anymore. The game has changed so much. You can’t stick around and drink or whatever, so I get out pretty quick.”
He was not happy when I broke the news to him about open windows instead of AC on buses “to maximize fresh air ventilation.‘'
“What?‘' Francona asked incredulously. “Oh [expletive]. What the [expletive]? They’ve come up with so many things. [Expletive], man.‘'
Fair enough. Every man will have his breaking point trying to comply with the new safety protocols in MLB’s 101-page COVID-19 operations manual.
“I’m glad we’re trying,‘' he said. “But this is going to be tough. Like the no-loitering thing. We’re going to have to get that across to the players. It can’t be a wink and a nod. We’ve got to live it out, because if we don’t, guys are going to get sick, and we can’t have that.
"The first thing we are going to do next week is have the medical people talk to the players. In the past, I would be first, but it's going to be the medical people now.''
What about Francona’s in-game access to his bench coach/ubiquitous aide-de-camp Brad Mills?
“Millsie is supposed to be 6 feet away from me during games, and that will be different, but we’ll be wearing masks,‘' said Francona. “Plus, in Cleveland they’re talking about moving my office down to one of those dugout suites so there’ll be some fresh air coming in.
"We've got to handle this. Nobody is more ingrained in the old ways than me. But we can complain or we can embrace it. Those are really the only two choices.
“I love being at the ballpark talking to the players and the coaches. That’s one of my favorite things. And that’s going to have to be kept to a minimum or we’re going to run into problems. We’re going to have to have a rigid schedule, and guys are going to have to follow it.‘'
This will be Francona's eighth season in Cleveland, matching his total in Boston. Does he think a 60-game season might yield baseball's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams?
“That could happen this year,‘' he acknowledged. “If it happens, I just hope it’s an Indian.‘'