Bryce Harper will soon begin his ninth season in the majors, coronavirus-permitting, so it’s easy to forget that he’s 27, two years younger than the average age of his big-league peers. And if you know any 27-year-olds, you might be able to guess what the Phillies’ star right fielder likes to do in his free time when the team is on the road.
“A lot of us play video games,” Harper said Friday. “You can be on Xbox Live or PS5 Live or on the PC and things like that, and you can communicate after games.”
Whether or not that means anything to you, it might just be among the more reassuring things said by any player arriving in the 30 training camps across Major League Baseball.
As the sport attempts to launch a season amid a global pandemic, success will depend largely on the behavior of players when they aren’t within the strictly regulated confines of the ballpark. And if today’s breed of millennial ballplayer is cool with sitting in a hotel room and gaming with teammates and friends, then maybe this challenge of virus mitigation won’t be quite so colossal after all.
MLB and the Players Association reported Friday that 38 people (31 players) tested positive for COVID-19 as part of the mandatory “intake screening” process. There were some All-Stars placed on the COVID-19 injured list, including Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, and Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez. Three more Phillies players, including ace pitcher Aaron Nola and center fielder Adam Haseley -- were being kept away from camp because of COVID-19 protocols.
Overall, the 1.9% rate of positive cases was considered to be encouraging, given that the national rate of positive tests is more than 8%. Players and staff are expected to be tested every other day in an attempt to keep the infections to a manageable number.
But the Phillies, more than most teams, understand how quickly the virus can spread. Although they kept their Florida spring-training facility “airtight,” according to general manager Matt Klentak, they had an outbreak last month in which 11 of 48 people tested positive. Four players -- including closer Hector Neris and second baseman Scott Kingery -- are known to have begun camp on the COVID-19 injured list.
Off-field behavior, then, will be paramount. Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he has had “numerous conversations” -- over Zoom and in person since players began getting into town -- about the importance of personal responsibility. But players can’t be monitored at all times, and risky behavior will imperil not only their health but also the health of teammates, families, and the team’s overall fortunes.
Ultimately, then, it will be up to the players to police each other. Leadership will take on new meaning in this strangest of seasons. The loudest voices in the Phillies clubhouse will need to belong to the most veteran players, and the message from left fielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto, pitcher Jake Arrieta, and Harper will need to set a tone for sticking together by staying apart.
“I think it falls on all of us, but I think it falls on some of those guys to say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing the right thing. Let’s make sure you are distant. Let’s make sure you’re wearing your mask. Don’t introduce new people into your life,’ " Girardi said. “I think it falls on veteran guys. They have to lead through this.”
Indeed, the healthiest teams will be the best teams. They might also be the teams that figure out how to turn seemingly restrictive activities into bonding opportunities.
That could mean getting teammates together for meals in a private dining room in the team hotel rather than going out to restaurants or bars in states that have eased their restrictions or places where the virus is spiking (the Phillies will make at least one trip to Florida). Or maybe it’s having everyone stream the same movie in the privacy of their room.
Or, as the 1.7 million followers of Harper on Instagram and 29,000 on Twitch could attest during the three-month hiatus between spring training and training camp, it might just mean throwing on a headset and inviting people to join (or even watch, apparently?) him play Fortnite.
“It’s going to be different this year,” Harper said. “We’re going to get up, we’re going to have our breakfast, we’re going to hang out in our hotel room, get on the bus, and go to the field.
“After the games, it’s going to be the same thing. We’re going to eat our dinner and then hang out in our hotel rooms. We all do Netflix or do the video games or things like that. I think that’s what you’re going to see even more of this year.
“We have to understand that we need to come together as a team and not go out and take advantage of going out or going to a bar. We cannot do that. You cannot do that as an individual. If there’s certain times that we can go and get dinner and bring it back to the hotel, I think that’s great. We can do that and know that we have our own little bubble. It’s a good thing that we like each other.”
Younger players seem to recognize the gravity of the situation. Left-hander Cole Irvin said Saturday that he believes a positive test could cost a pitcher six weeks in a season that will last only nine. Irvin said he and pitcher Vince Velasquez have pledged to hold each other accountable for their behavior. Several players were discussing whether it was a good idea to attend a Fourth of July fireworks show Saturday night.
Girardi, 55, noted that many players’ habits seem to have changed since his 15-year career ended in 2003. They don’t tend to go out on the road nearly as much, perhaps because they don’t want to be recognized or see their picture or a video posted online.
It’s another millennial trait that might bode well for keeping the virus out of clubhouses.
"One thing that I will say baseball players do a lot is they socially distance during a season a lot because they don't go out in public a lot and have fans they have to deal with all the time," Girardi said. "You'll see players on the road stay in their room a lot and they'll order room service, and you just kind of have to do that all the time.
“So hopefully that practice they have had will work a little bit. The big-league players will have more practice at that than the minor-league players in camp. We will stay on them.”