CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The up-close feel that makes spring training a unique experience for Phillies fans was adjusted Saturday because of concerns of the spreading coronavirus.

The Phillies, in a Saturday morning team meeting, were instructed to not sign autographs for fans before spring-training games at Spectrum Field. Instead, the players signed baseballs and cards in the clubhouse to distribute to fans. The team, in a statement, called it a temporary measure based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

“It has everything to do with safety,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “The autographs and interactions, especially down here in spring training, are a little bit more intimate and more personal. We understand, as players, that this is a chance to connect with fans, but at the same time this is something that’s turning into something that’s global. Unfortunately, until we have more information and knowledge of the subject, the league is asking us to be [more] safe than sorry.”

The Phillies left a box of baseballs in the clubhouse for players to sign and had 5-by-7 photo cards shipped from Philadelphia. Fans clamor for autographs along the front-row rails before games. The pregame autograph hunt is a tradition unique to baseball.

Fans crowding along the rail before the Phillies played the Boston Red Sox on Saturday.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Fans crowding along the rail before the Phillies played the Boston Red Sox on Saturday.

Other teams -- including the Astros and Nationals -- introduced similar policies Saturday. The Florida Department of Health said Friday that there have been six cases of coronavirus in the state and two related deaths. None of the cases are in Pinellas County, where the Phillies train.

The Phillies added hand sanitizer to the ballpark bathrooms and reminded fans in a pregame message to wash their hands.

“There will still be an opportunity to get out there,” Hoskins said of signing autographs. “We’re just kind of skipping the middleman and making sure that everyone involved is safe.”

Earlier in the week, Italy announced that all sporting events in the country would be played in empty stadiums until April 3. The NBA instructed teams to prepare for the possibility of playing in empty arenas.

The Phillies will begin the regular season March 26, but MLB does not have plans to cancel games or play in empty ballparks. The Orioles and White Sox played in an empty ballpark in 2015 because of unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in the custody of Baltimore police officers. It was the first major-league game played without fans.

“I can’t imagine that. I can’t,” Hoskins said. “The first thing that comes to mind is the game that was played in Baltimore. Hopefully, it doesn’t get to that point, but as of right now it’s hard to speculate how this is going.”