PHOENIX, HOUSTON, BATON ROUGE, DALLAS – They should be together in Scottsdale, Surprise and Peoria, Arizona, or in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, learning where they would begin the 2020 Minor League Baseball season.
Instead, seven former Northwestern State baseball players are like the rest of us – coming to terms with a new normal brought on by the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.
A relatively abrupt stop to spring training brought on a wave of emotions and questions for a group that featured three players – Nathan Jones, Austin Reich and Caleb Ricca — who were in their first spring trainings and another (Adam Oller) who was in his first with a new team.
“It will be one everyone remembers for sure,” said Jones, who spent most of his offseason at the New York Mets’ spring training complex.
Jones’ NSU classmate, Austin Reich, spent a few days at the San Francisco Giants spring training complex before things changed. He echoed and enhanced Jones’ comments on the unexpected halt to the national pastime.
“This is something they make movies about,” Reich said. “I get to tell my kids I was at the spring training where they shut baseball down.”
At least Jones and Reich were able to say they were at spring training.
Ricca never made it out to Arizona for his first spring training with the Seattle Mariners. A 23rd-round draft pick in June, Ricca had boarded a plane bound for Arizona when he got word spring training activities were canceled.
“I was with my friend who plays for the Padres (Robbie Podorsky’s) parents,” Ricca said. “Reeves Martin, who played at UNO, texts me and said, ‘They’re sending us home.’ I said, ‘I’m getting off this plane.’ My luggage was actually sent to Arizona. I got off the plane and told (Podorsky’s parents), ‘We aren’t going.’”
After the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers met at American Family Fields of Phoenix on Feb. 27, Royals outfielder Nick Heath and Milwaukee catcher David Fry were able to catch up in person and posed for a photo behind home plate.
Fifteen days later, neither Heath nor Fry had another spring training game to play. Fifteen days before Major League Baseball’s opening day, baseball joined the ever-growing list of American sports to shut down among the growing spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
It made the rain that fell in Arizona the second-oddest occurrence of that day.
“It was raining, and we were catching pens in the indoor cages,” Fry said. “We looked over and a bunch of our video guys were back there running the Trackman and video stuff. They all looked at their phones, and all the pitching coaches took off inside. It was the day after (Utah Jazz center) Rudy Gobert found out he tested positive and the NBA shut down.
“Guys had been talking about it being a thing for us. We all looked around and said, ‘Oh shoot, are we done?’ They weren’t allowed to tell us anything, but we knew something was up. We had a meeting three days from then. My family and friends just got into town that Thursday, so I figured I’ll just hang out with them. We got a text the next day, and they told us we were flying home. It was extremely weird.”
While Heath and Fry came across each other in game action, Reich and outfielder Kwan Adkins shared the same camp as part of the San Francisco Giants organization, checking in on each other when time and schedules permitted.
Both Giants prospects are back in the Baton Rouge area and have been able to stay in touch and keep each other focused and ready for whenever baseball resumes.
“It’s helping both of us,” Reich said. “I’m throwing against him, letting him see live pitching. It’s helping me face him. I’m not having to face high school guys or just someone who can stand in the box for me. I have someone to train with. It’s easier to train with somebody than by yourself, because you’re pushing yourself off what they’re doing.”
Jones and Adam Oller keenly are aware of that importance as well.
Rejoined as organization mates after the New York Mets drafted Oller in the Triple-A phase of December’s Rule V Draft, the right-handers have resumed a friendship that began in their one season together as Demons in 2016. That year, Oller was a second-team All-American and Jones was a freshman closer, who saved Oller’s win at eventual College World Series runner-up Arizona that season.
Once the Mets informed their players of the cancelation, it was Oller’s turn to offer relief to Jones.
“When this was going down, he asked, ‘Do you mind if I live with you?’” Oller said. “I told him absolutely. It makes the best of the situation for both of us. The best part is I always have someone to throw with. I have someone to talk to, someone who wants to do the same thing.”
That built-in camaraderie and support looms ever larger as the break from baseball extends to an unknown date, which poses another conundrum for the seven former Demons.
Every February like clockwork, spring training arrives, allowing professional baseball players to plan their offseason workouts to the most minute detail. Now comes a break of an undetermined length of time.
“The best thing we can do is keep our same routine,” Adkins said. “If you work out in the morning and throw in the afternoon, keep doing that. We’re just making sure we can come back in the same shape we left in. It’s impossible to come back in 100 percent the same shape we were in, but it’s what we’re working toward.”
While each former NSU standout had plenty to gain during spring training, none stood to benefit more than Heath, a member of Kansas City’s 40-man roster who was projected to make his Major League Baseball debut at some point in the 2020 season.
A 2016 Royals draftee, Heath played winter ball in the Dominican Republic and was building on that momentum when baseball came to a halt less than three weeks ago.
Heath said his biggest challenge has been maintaining his routine.
“I would probably say the mental side (has been the biggest challenge),” he said. “During the season, you’re in a solidified routine from when you wake up in the morning to when you come to the ballpark to the music you listen to. The toughest part was getting out of my routine. That really helps me during the season, so now I’m building a different routine so when we get back rolling, I’ll be as prepared as I can be.”
Photo: Former NSU baseball players Nick Heath (left) and David Fry pose for a photo after Heath’s Royals and Fry’s Brewers met in a spring training game in Phoenix on Feb. 27. Credit: Jason Hanna/Kansas City Royals