Jackie Bradley Jr. belted a triple to right-center field off Chris Mazza in an intrasquad game early this past week. You could hear Bradley grunt at the point of contact. You could hear his metal spikes hit the infield dirt as he rounded second base and headed toward third.
“Come on, Jackie! Come on, Jackie!” yelled third base coach Carlos Febles, urging Bradley to meet him at the bag.
You could hear everything. There was no piped-in noise that day, so there was this feeling of intimacy. But once Bradley reached third you were quickly reminded that this season won’t be intimate at all. There was no touch from Febles to praise Bradley for his triple. No handshake. No fist bump. No pat on the back. Febles kept his distance.
While baseball is “back,” that moment served as a reminder that the country is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how players must cope with the unknown and the stress that comes with it as they attempt to play a season.
Red Sox players have acknowledged that this season will be different and will present new challenges, forcing them to adjust on the fly.
“Right now, we’re putting a lot of trust in each other as players,” Bradley said recently. “We have to be responsible as an organization if we really want this thing to work.”
Bradley lives in Florida during the offseason. He chose not to take a flight to Boston for summer camp, electing to drive instead. He broke the drive into two segments: stopping to see his family in Virginia before continuing up I-95.
Diligence is paramount for Bradley. Not only for himself, but for his family. Just this past week, Bradley announced that he and his wife, Erin, are expecting their second child this fall. Bradley, whose son’s name will be Jackie Bradley III, made the tough decision to leave his wife and daughter at home as an extra precaution.
“It’s important for me to be responsible,” Bradley said. “I don’t want that brought around my family. We all want to stay as healthy as we possibly can.”
The players’ safety largely leans on protocols, but that’s just a shield, one that doesn’t negate contracting the virus. And without a vaccine there is uncertainty, and sometimes fear.
“There’s 30 guys on the team, and I think there are 30 different opinions about how to feel about this virus,” said Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh. “I think one thing that’s pretty much standard across the board is, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to get it.’ You don’t want to get it at this level because at the very least you’re going to have to miss a quarter of the [60-game] season potentially.”
There’s so many unknowns associated with this season. What will travel really be like? What will it mean when the Sox go to play in Florida — a state that has seen a significant spike in cases — against the Rays and Marlins? Players aren’t in a bubble like they are in the NBA, so what if one player isn’t vigilant and ventures out irresponsibly?
“There will surely be a feeling of uncertainty because this pandemic is an experience that baseball players, as well as athletes of other sports like the NBA, have never experienced,” said Dr. Gerald Reid, a Boston psychologist who specializes in anxiety and sports psychology. “As a player and as a person, there may be a lot of new information, changes to routines and procedures, and different responsibilities amidst the pandemic.”
There are strategies to deal with the uncertainty that can help simplify things. Some of those include mapping out all the changes and new responsibilities on paper. And when players feel some of that anxiety, don’t fight it. It’s normal.
“Players should remember that they are going through an adjustment, and adjustments are naturally uncomfortable in the beginning,” Reid explained. “But it can feel better over time as familiarity increases.”
Protocols mean limitations. As McHugh pointed out, some players like to get to the field five hours before game time. That’s not an option now. Some enjoy playing cards with teammates. They can’t do that either.
Only nine players and three coaches are allowed in the dugout at Fenway at any one time. Everyone else will have to sit underneath a large tent adjacent to the dugout. Routines will be disrupted. Players can’t spit or chew sunflower seeds. In McHugh’s case, he can’t lick his fingers when he pitches in order to get a better grip on the ball.
“I’ve had to wear a mask even when I’m playing catch right now, to get out of the habit of licking my fingers when I throw,” said McHugh, who is still recovering from a flexor strain and likely won’t be ready for the start of the season. “Because it is one of those patterns that’s ingrained in you and I don’t really realize I’m doing it.”
The idea of 162 games is also ingrained in players. Yet the cliche about baseball being a marathon isn’t the case this year. This season is a sprint, which could make players feel a responsibility to stay on the field, even at the risk of injury.
“Guys are going to try to nurse injuries because they know they need to stay on the field right now,” said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine in Los Angeles who recently performed Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery. “When ordinarily they would look at it as a 162-game season and they took off a few weeks at the beginning to nurse something, they wouldn’t feel any pressure to get back on the field.”
There are doubts that surround this season. Natural anxieties and fears. Those anxieties might impact play. But perhaps not.
“My experience working with patients and athlete clients is that people can face challenges and rise to the occasion when they have the support in place to do so,” Reid said. “When they know what they need, and when they are open to the process of working through the challenge.”
Those sentiments echo those of Bradley, McHugh, and the rest of the Red Sox, at least publicly.
“You try not to focus on what you can’t control,” Bradley said. “Precautionary measures have been taken. We’re putting a lot of trust in each other.”
After hitting his triple early this past week, Bradley scored on a single up the middle. But there were no fist bumps, no high-fives or handshakes at home plate. Everybody had to keep their distance. That’s baseball in 2020, hoping to give life to a season that remains in the balance.