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CLEARWATER, Fla. — Major League Baseball has suspended spring-training activity and encouraged players to return home, increasing the likelihood that the start of the season will be delayed by more than two weeks.
The decision, made after an agreement with the players union, comes a day after MLB canceled the remaining spring-training games and said opening day -- originally scheduled for March 26 -- would be postponed for at least two weeks because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.
Players can elect to return home, remain in their spring-training cities, or return to their club’s home city. Several Phillies front office officials will be returning home Saturday while players were still deciding what to do.
It was already going to be a challenge to be ready for April 6, but that challenge now becomes almost impossible as teams will not be holding structured workouts.
“We’re all just kind of waiting,” bench coach Rob Thomson said Friday morning as he left the team facility.
The Phillies left their complex Friday unsure of what lies ahead. General manager Matt Klentak held a clubhouse meeting with players, coaches, and staff, but details were slim as baseball is still trying to formulate a plan. Major League Baseball and the players union were still working on an agreement for how spring training would proceed.
Nick Pivetta and Cole Irvin left Spectrum Field with baseballs stuffed into their mitts. Deolis Guerra and Reggie McClain carried equipment bags over their shoulders. Vince Velasquez rode to his car on a skateboard. And third-base coach Dusty Wathan carried a fishing rod.
The Phillies were instructed Friday morning to leave for two days before returning Monday. Some planned to pass the time playing catch. Others would catch up on sleep. And some looked to cast a rod. By then, the Phillies hoped to have a better grasp on the situation.
Instead, they are now free to leave.
“I think it’s going to be in a constant state of flux until we see what the trend is with this COVID-19,” pitching coach Bryan Price said.
Opening day was scheduled for March 26, but there was no indication if the delay will be two weeks or two months. The longer the delay, the more challenging it will be for pitchers to stay ready for the season.
Phillies starters were beginning to pitch deeper into Grapefruit League games and were getting closer to reaching the 100-pitch threshold in their starts, a sign that they were ready for the regular season.
Now, they have to pause their work. Too much throwing, and they run the risk of burning out before the season begins. Too little, and they could lose the strength they built this spring.
“If they want to take a couple days off, they can,” Price said. “The guys that are healthy are in a good spot. The guys who are doing recovery work will come in and do recovery work, continue their rehab stuff. But taking a couple days will not take any of these guys backwards. If they went two days without picking up a baseball, it’s not going to discontinue their progress toward the goal of being ready for opening day, whenever that day is.”
The team complex was closed Friday morning to fans, who gather each morning on the backfields of the Carpenter Complex for a close view of the players as they prepare for the season. Those fields were empty Friday.
The team store was open, and the ticket office issued refunds for canceled games. The Phillies had home games scheduled for Friday and Sunday. Fans lingered outside the locked gates, peeking through for a glimpse of the ballpark around which they might have planned their vacation.
Mark and Catherine Kutteroff and Jeff and Colleen Clauson — two couples from Stroudsburg, Pa. — were flying to Florida on Thursday when spring training was canceled, learning of MLB’s decision once their plane landed in Tampa.
This weekend, leading into Tuesday’s St. Patrick’s Day game, was expected to be the busiest travel weekend for Phillies fans as they flocked to the resort town on the Gulf of Mexico. They, just like the players, have to find something else to do besides baseball.
“This was a bucket-list trip,” Colleen Clauson said.
Before canceling spring-training games, Major League Baseball instructed players to not sign autographs for fans and closed the clubhouse to media members as means to prevent the spread of the virus. But as other leagues started to suspend games, it became apparent that the start of the baseball season was at risk.
A day after canceling the rest of spring training, it’s still unclear when the season will begin.
“A lot of people have done a lot of work getting prepared and then ramping into the last couple of weeks of spring training getting ready for the season, so now you’ve got to back down and not start over, but you just have to monitor the workload so they’re not doing too much. Now we have to revamp it because we have two more weeks of spring training essentially."
The Phillies gathered here in early February after spending the winter working at home, all while their sights were set on March 26. It’s unclear when practices will resume or even where those workouts will be held.
When the Phillies left Friday morning, they didn’t know when opening day would be. But they at least thought that workouts would resume Monday. Later Friday, they learned that both are unknowns.
“It’s inconvenient, but we’re just dealing with a serious issue here,” Price said. “Let’s put everything else aside and say we’re just talking about baseball — it’s imperfect but not something that we can’t work our way through. Right now, we don’t really have a true opening day and until then, we have no idea if there’s going to be significant breaks between now and the first day of the season or if we can actually start to target an exact date.