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Sports Saturday

Coronavirus impacts sports like Spanish flu, 9/11 attacks, world wars did not

“It’s hard to even fast-forward to next week and understand where our country’s going to be at that point,” said Cubs coach Mike Borzello, who was in New York on 9/11.

The Cubs spring training facility has been shut down to all but a few players and employees for the past week.

MESA, Ariz. — Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez and the team’s young bullpen catcher, Mike Borzello, were in the middle of New York City on that sunny Tuesday morning that turned to smoke and horror in an instant.

“In a half-hour, our lives changed,” said Borzello, now the catching and run-prevention strategist on the Cubs’ coaching staff.

“The buildings come down. We’re trapped in Manhattan. We don’t know if we’re getting attacked.”

When baseball shut down last week because of the coronavirus pandemic — along with every other major professional sports league and the NCAA — that was one of the first flashes through Borzello’s emotions: the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“But that was a different feeling, obviously, than this,” he said as he spoke through a fence one morning this week, standing a safe distance of 8-10 feet away, at an otherwise quiet spring-training facility.

“This is more panic,” he said of the overall public response to the COVID-19 crisis that has shut down schools, businesses and even public beaches across the country in the last 10 days.

“This is more of a gradual understanding of what we’re dealing with — we’re still not sure to an extent. The question about 9/11 at the moment was, ‘Are we being attacked?’ Once we got past that, it was a moment. This is a slow burn right now.”

In fact, the Sept. 11 attacks shut down baseball for only a week, and the season was extended to allow the full schedule to be completed before starting a postseason in which Borzello’s Yankees reached the World Series.

By the time the Yankees played Game 3 in New York, their first home game in that series, president George W. Bush received a deafening ovation as he took the mound for the ceremonial first pitch and delivered a strike in what might have been the emotional peak of a dramatic seven-game series.

Now, only the silence is deafening across spring-training diamonds in Florida and Arizona during what was to be the final weekend of exhibition games before teams broke camp for season openers this week.

“It’s pretty quiet,” said center fielder Ian Happ, one of maybe 20 players still using the Cubs’ facility to work out and stay ready for a season nobody can be sure will be played.

“Has this happened before? Has this ever happened, where the season was about to start and then it gets postponed?” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said during a conversation a few days ago about the “limbo” players and teams are facing.

It hasn’t, other than the labor stoppages Schwarber already knew about.

In fact, since the longest-running major team-sports league in the U.S. began its current American League-National League configuration in 1901, the shortest season played was the strike season of 1981, when three teams played 103 games each (the Giants played 111).

Even the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which killed more than 600,000 Americans, did not cause a baseball stoppage, although the 1918 and 1919 seasons were shortened after a directive from the U.S. Secretary of War during World War I regarding the activity of would-be soldiers.

Teams lost between 23 and 31 games because of the early end to the 1918 season.

The twice-delayed 2020 season already has wiped out more than 40 games from the front end of the schedule based on the most recent postponement lasting until mid-May.

Locked-down Cubs camp

Nobody seems to expect baseball to resume by then. And even if it did, players say they’ve been told to expect three to four weeks of spring-like prep time to ramp up for rescheduled openers.

That means at least mid-June, maybe July. And making up that much lost time on the back end is impossible without daily doubleheaders and/or a warm-weather (or domed) neutral-site postseason.

“That’s on the table, I’m sure, more doubleheaders,” Cubs reliever Brandon Morrow said. “I’ve heard [a proposal] of just playing a bunch of doubleheaders and expanding the roster so you could carry three or four extra pitchers.”

Of course, nobody can know.

“It’s unprecedented,” infielder David Bote said.

Said Happ, a Cubs union rep who gets regular updates from the union’s constant talks with MLB: “It’s a lot of guesswork right now.”

That’s just the baseball part, the part that involves the eerie silence of the sports world.

“It’s hard to even fast-forward to next week and understand where our country’s going to be at that point,” Borzello said. “It’s hard to even think about a season at all.”

Borzello just moved to Arizona from the Los Angeles area this offseason. He’s showing up at the complex to offer whatever he can, mostly working with pitchers during informal work.

Morrow also lives in Arizona, making the complex an easy commute and a comparative safe zone. Happ is staying with friends and not bound by a lease. Bote just extended his spring rental agreement through April to buy time to learn more before making a longer-term decision.

Anthony Rizzo doesn’t want to fly 5½ hours home to Florida only to find out he has to be back in Arizona in a few weeks. Yu Darvish has a home in the Phoenix area, and his wife and kids are with him.

So they stay. For now.

But top executives have left the complex. Manager David Ross stayed in town with his kids until Thursday, when he stopped by the complex to drop off some equipment before heading to the airport.

Kyle Hendricks and Darvish play catch Tuesday at Cubs’ locked-down complex in Mesa.

“There’s more and more people leaving every day as this evolves,” said Morrow, who estimated 35 of the 39 players still on the big-league spring roster were in camp the first day or two of the shutdown. “But then each day there were two or three guys packing their bags.”

Even inside the recently deep-cleaned workout facility, the few still at work are taking social-distancing precautions and wearing latex gloves under their batting and fielding gloves. There is a 10-person limit in the enormous team weight room.

It’s not lost on Borzello and many of the players that sports often provide an escape for fans’ real-life difficulties and hardships — “even for people who play sports,” Schwarber said.”

“After 9/11, baseball became the campfire everyone got around to get their mind off of all the tragedy and horror that happened,” Borzello said.

Similarly, president Franklin Roosevelt in January 1942 urged MLB to play its season for the morale of a country at war again.

“The good thing about our sport,” Schwarber said, “is it sounds like they’re still going to let us play, eventually.”

Even if the battle lines of this war do not seem as clear.

“This might be the most united that the world’s ever been,” Borzello said. “We all have the same enemy.”

World Series GM3 X
Yankee Stadium during 2001 World Series.