PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The sudden finish to spring training started Thursday morning with a bus ride, the monotonous way many days begin in the weeks leading to each baseball season. But this ride - a 100-mile trek along the Gulf coast of Florida - felt different.
It seemed inevitable, as the Phillies boarded their coach bus in Clearwater, that this could be the last ride for a while.
A night earlier, the Phillies watched the NBA suspend its season because of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. They heard during their ride to Port Charlotte that the NHL had canceled practices before eventually stopping its season. And just before the first pitch of what would be the final game of spring training, another college basketball tournament was canceled.
“You had an inkling that something was going to happen,” manager Joe Girardi said.
Baseball soon joined the other sports, canceling the remainder of spring training and suspending the start of the regular season by at least two weeks. Major League Baseball’s announcement came during the sixth inning of the Phillies’ 8-4 win over the Rays, a game that carried little meaning and finished 90 minutes after spring training was cancelled.
“This is something that I think we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. It’s something that’s kind of stopping the world as we know it,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “Was I surprised? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Just because of how serious this could end up being. Again, as much as sport in general gives us a distraction from things like this, at some point you’ve got to put health and safety first.”
The Phillies will meet Monday morning in Clearwater, hoping to find some clarity about what is to come. Major League Baseball said “guidance related to daily operations and workouts” will be relayed to teams in the “coming days.”
The season was to begin March 26 in Miami with the Phillies playing the Marlins. But now there’s no date for opening day. The start of the season is undefined and the team does not know what the first day of a canceled spring training will look like.
Will players remain in Florida and train for a season that should eventually begin? Or will they return home and await more details?
“The union and the commissioner have to discuss what’s next,” Girardi said. “What do we do next? What happens to the players? Where do they go? Do we have a time when we come back? Is it just in limbo? So all we know is tomorrow there won’t be games.”
The status of Thursday’s game remained uncertain even after the Phillies had conducted batting practice and the grounds crew had chalked the base lines. It seemed every other sport was stopping, but baseball kept going. If the team sat on a bus for two hours, one Phillies player said during warm-ups, then at least let them play.
Finally, the first pitch was thrown. They played all nine innings, but the game felt like noise in the background of a bigger story.
“Absolutely, they have to do it because I think family is more important than anything in sports,” infielder Jean Segura said. “When you have a virus, you want to keep your family safe and the players, too. MLB made that decision today and I think it was the right decision.”
The decision was made after baseball commissioner Rob Manfred held a conference call with the 30 team owners while several teams, including the Phillies, were in the midst of games. Girardi found out from a staff member in the dugout who had a cell phone. Hoskins heard updates from fans but did not know for sure until returning to the clubhouse after being subbed out of the game.
A year ago, the Phillies gathered alerts in the dugout during a Grapefruit League game to learn they signed Bryce Harper. This year, they were briefed on their season’s being delayed.
“We’re kind of in uncharted territory here,” Hoskins said. “I think health and safety have to come first and foremost here. We’ve kind of seen that around the rest of the sports industry and throughout really every other sector throughout the world, too.”
Jonathan Hennigan, a 25-year-old minor-league pitcher the Phillies drafted in the 21st round of the 2016 draft, threw the final pitch of spring training, striking out a Rays minor-leaguer. The spring-training game ended as most do, with minor-league players finishing the later innings.
But this one -- just like the bus ride -- felt different. Spring training was finished. Now, baseball waits for a season to start.