Jonathan Lucroy pulled up to Providence Bagel one recent morning.
“Just give me a second; I’m ordering some food here,” said Lucroy, pausing mid-thought. “Yeah, can I get a sausage egg and cheese on a plain bagel, please?”
Lucroy then turned back to the conversation.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “This is a good spot.”
It’s a spot Lucroy visits frequently before heading to the Red Sox’ alternate site at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. It’s the first time in a big-league career that’s spanned more than 10 years that he’s had to, really, start from the beginning.
Lucroy, 34, is a part of the Red Sox taxi squad. And unlike his breakfast choice, this reality isn’t easy to chew on. Yet the veteran catcher who has made two All-Star teams tries to keep a fresh perspective.
“It’s an adjustment for me,” Lucroy said. “It’s the first time I’ve had to play in ’the minor leagues’ since I’ve been called up to the big leagues. It’s been 10 years.
“But it’s just an opportunity to play. If a team out there needs a catcher, I’ll be ready. I’m one cough away from being in the big leagues.”
Nothing, of course, is normal about this year of the COVID-19 pandemic. That trickles down to the taxi squad, which has many of the same protocols as the big league team; players are tested every other day and spend much of their time in their hotel rooms. But unlike the major leaguers, they don’t get to play other teams, just intrasquad games at McCoy Stadium.
“Some days we play two innings, some days we play eight innings,” said Lucroy, who noted that he tries to work with the younger pitchers as much as he can. “It depends on what pitchers need to throw.”
Typically, the players’ report time is noon, but they often show up 30 minutes earlier, especially if they are due for a COVID-19 test. It’s a quick turnaround for a pitcher. By 12:45 p.m., if he’s not on the schedule to pitch that day, he usually has to be on the field stretching.
The schedule isn’t grueling, really. The whole purpose is to get in and get out and spend the least amount of time as possible at the stadium.
Life on the taxi squad differs in its purpose, depending on whom you talk to. While Lucroy is using this as an opportunity to prove he deserves to be back on an MLB roster, other players — particularly younger ones — are utilizing it to focus on weaknesses in their game.
Once the minor league season was canceled, player development hit the backburner. A lot of teams invited some of their top prospects to camp so they could stay on track.
Prospects Jarren Duran and Tanner Houck are included in that. Duran, an outfielder, used the offseason to reinvent his swing. He has exhibited little power, with just eight homers in his two seasons. But at the alternate site, Duran has turned heads, displaying more power and a cleaner approach at the plate. He has worked tirelessly on his swing with Portland Sea Dogs hitting coach Lance Zawadzki.
“I’ve worked on my swing path,” Duran said. “Cleaning things up, making them a lot simpler than they used to be.”
Houck, a righthanded pitcher, has a history of struggling against lefthanded hitters. So sometimes when he pitches, the Sox will load the opposing lineup with lefties.
“A lot of my outings, I have thrown to all the lefties that we have here,” Houck said. “Where it’s just like one after the other and continuing to develop that and trying to hone that.”
The players don’t have much communication with each other. Everything is pretty spread out, and the whole purpose of the setup is for them to get in their work as quickly as possible and go back to the hotel.
And at the hotel is where it gets tricky. Even there, Houck said, players can’t be around one another, leaving a ton of downtime alone.
Is there some kind of video game crew to pass the time? Apparently so.
“You hit the nail right on the head,” Houck said. “There’s a group of us playing Call of Duty. We’re playing a lot of Modern Warfare.”
The players who participate stay in their own rooms so they can maintain social distance.
“I usually get a ride from Jeter [Downs],” Duran said, “and the only time I talk to him after that is when we are playing Call of Duty. I don’t see anybody after I get back to the hotel.”
The adjustment to being confined isn’t for the weak of heart. But, again, perspective matters.
“I get to play baseball every day,” Duran said. “It’s better than some of these other guys that don’t get to play baseball against competition.”
Pitching prospect Jay Groome, who has had his share of injuries, including Tommy John surgery, has an even lighter perspective.
“Honestly, I’m used to having this downtime,” Groome said with a smile. “I’m used to focusing on myself. It’s obviously a lot different here in a hotel. I don’t know, I think you just have to suck it up a little bit. It stinks, but everyone is going through it, too.”
Lucroy has had to suck it up, too, hoping for a last taste at the breakfast table, while others are looking for their first.
“I tell you what,” Lucroy said, “if you take baseball for granted, it can go away quickly for whatever reason.”