Baseball In Solitary: My Return To Sportswriting
My first game story in 145 days came on one of the weirdest afternoons (and evenings) of my career.
When I left Little Caesars Arena on the night of March 10, I was expecting to have a few days off.
It turned out to be 144, plus an extra 25 hours thrown in just to make it a little weirder.
Don’t get me wrong. When I drove home from the game between the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings, I knew my world was about to change.
That afternoon, Michigan had announced its first two cases of COVID-19, leading Governor Gretchen Whitmer to immediately declare a state of emergency.
That night was also the first for the NHL’s new media regulations. Worrying we might contaminate the players, the league introduced social distancing policies. We couldn’t go into the locker rooms and we had to stay six feet away from anyone we talked to in the hallway.
I didn’t realize how quickly everything would go off the rails. Within 48 hours, Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and the sports world shut down.
It hit home pretty quickly, as I found myself in a medically ordered quarantine after Christian Wood of the Pistons tested positive. Gobert had played in Detroit in his last game before testing positive, guarding Wood for most of the game.
I had interviewed Wood a couple days earlier, so I knew I was probably safe, but I followed all of the rules to be sure.
It could have been much worse. A colleague who worked as a cameraman for the Jazz-Pistons game ended in the Utah locker room, while I was in Detroit’s. He caught the coronavirus from Gobert and ended up on a ventilator in a medically induced coma. Luckily, he made a full recovery.
It was a frightening time, especially as Metro Detroit became one of the country’s hardest-hit areas. I’m high-risk because of my diabetes and my wife is at extreme risk after a kidney transplant in 2018.
So we locked down hard. We didn’t leave the house if we could avoid it, which meant a lot of things were getting delivered to the house.
It wasn’t fun, but it was safe. Angie was working full time from home, while I tried to pick up a few freelance gigs. Mainly, though, I collected unemployment — I had never done that before — and waited.
The Pistons and Red Wings weren’t even invited to their league’s bubbles — it’s a bad time for sports in Detroit — but the Tigers returned to play in late July. There aren’t any fans, and it isn’t going very well, but Saturday, August 1 was going to be the day I finally went back to work.
Except it wasn’t. I did get to Comerica Park, but the Tigers and Reds were rained out before a pitch could be thrown. I did get to practice standing for the national anthem, though. That’s when the rain started — with both teams lined up on the baselines.
So my first game story after 145 days was going to be historic — the first seven-inning doubleheader in the history of Major League Baseball. Originally, that honor was going to go to the Brewers and Cardinals, but the COVID-19 crisis in St. Louis meant we were going to be first.
If it ever stopped raining.
I got to the ballpark at 11:30 am, underwent a temperature check via forehead zapping, and made sure they had my daily screening paperwork. Deemed safe to enter the stadium, I didn’t head for the press box — the place I’ve covered Tigers games since Comerica Park opened in 2000 — but for Suite 129.
Located high above Detroit dugout on the third-base line, the suite is my new ballpark home. The Tigers media-relations staff has done a brilliant job of keeping media members as safe as possible, and they went an extra step because of my high-risk family situation.
So I’ve got my own isolation chamber. It sounds glamorous — you can really get your party on in a suite at a Tigers game — but I’m not being supplied with dinner, dessert, and adult beverages. I packed a meal of cold pizza, four bottles of water, and a package of cashews.
That’s where I spent more than nine hours, including a 125-minute rain delay before I finally got to see a pitch.
At that point, around 2:20 in the afternoon, it began to sink in just how weird it was going to get. Instead of talking to colleagues with the hum of the crowd in the background, it was eerily quiet. I was alone and the only cheering was fake crowd noise being played on the stadium PA system.
The idea is to provide something like the atmosphere of a regular-season game, but the reactions are a little late and a sudden roar out of complete silence is a bit jarring.
There was one amazing defensive play in the seventh inning of the first game. With Cincinnati protecting a one-run lead, JaCoby Jones smashed a one-hop grounder off the glove of first baseman Josh VanMeter. As the ricochet headed for centerfield, second baseman Kyle Farmer made a leaping bare-handed grab and threw to first, where Reds closer Rasiel Iglesias made a lunging catch while keeping his foot on the bag.
Reds manager David Boone said it was the best play he’d ever seen in person, but the recorded crowd just let out a soft “awwww.”
Covering a seven-inning doubleheader would have been memorable in any circumstances, and doing it in an empty suite in an empty ballpark made it more unusual. The crazy baseball just added to the oddness.
What is happening?
In the opener, Nick Castellanos hit a two-run homer in the first inning and another home run to lead off the third. That doesn’t sound strange — Castellanos’ entire value as a baseball player is as a hitter — but it was only his second multi-homer game at Comerica Park. He only did it once in the seven seasons he played for the Tigers before being traded to the Cubs last year.
A lot of Tigers have developed a love-hate relationship with Comerica Park in the last 20 years. It’s a great park to hit doubles and triples — Castellanos led the AL with 10 triples in 2017 and averaged 40 doubles per 162 games as a Tiger — but it is tough for a home-run hitter.
By 2018, Castellanos let it get into his head, complaining about the dimensions on a regular basis and making it clear he had no intention of finishing his career there. He prospered as soon as he was traded to Chicago, hitting 16 homers in 51 games, then signed to play at homer-loving Great American Ballpark. He’s currently on pace for 27 homers in a 60-game season.
After his second homer, Ron Gardenhire pulled starting pitcher Rony Garcia and brought in Tyler Alexander. Alexander started a few games and pitched in long relief for the 114-loss Tigers last year, so he didn’t get a lot of attention, but he was OK. He had a 98 ERA+ and a 4.15 FIP with really good control. He’s only 25 and could have a future as an opener.
When he replaced Garcia and struck out the next three batters, I didn’t really notice, but I certainly did when he came out for the fourth and struck out the side.
Then he did it again in the fifth, giving him nine straight strikeouts to tie the American League record held by, among others, Tigers fan-favorite Doug Fister. The night Fister did it, Max Scherzer loudly reminded everyone in the clubhouse it was yet another record not held by the great Justin Verlander. I hope Scherzer and Verlander go into the Hall of Fame together, just to see how much crap Max gives him in his speech.
Gardenhire sent Alexander back out for the sixth for a shot at Tom Seaver’s hallowed mark of 10 straight strikeouts. First up for the Reds, long-time Tigers nemesis Mike Moustakas. Alexander got a very generous call on an outside fastball and Moustakas hit a hard foul on another fastball. At 0–2, Alexander split the plate with a low curveball, but home-plate umpire Larry Vanover didn’t give him another call. At 1–2, Alexander decided to throw another curveball, this one on the inside corner, and Moustakas fouled it off.
If there had been a crowd, they would have been on their feet at this point.
My slider had been my best pitch all day, so I figured I’d throw a 1–2 fastball up and in, get him backing up a little and then throw another slider low and away.
With no fans to get excited, Moustakas’ yelp when the pitch drilled him on the forearm was audible in Suite 129. He had to come out of the game and didn’t play in the second game of the doubleheader.
The streak over, Alexander promptly struck out Eugenio Suarez, then picked pinch-runner Travis Jankowski off first. His incredible day came to an end after he walked pinch-hitter Matt Davidson. He deserved a standing ovation and a chance to tip his cap to the fans.
T. Alexander: 3.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 10 K, 1 HB
Only one Tigers reliever has ever struck out more than 10 batters in a game. On 15 June 1965, Detroit starter Dave Wickersham retired one of the six hitters he faced, leaving with three runs in and runners on first and second.
Twenty-one-year-old Denny McClain, making a rare relief appearance, got out of the inning with two strikeouts. That was just the start, as he ended the day with 14 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. He allowed a pair of runs, but the Tigers scored four runs in the bottom of the eight to post an improbable 6–5 victory.
Meanwhile, back in 2020, the Reds took a 3–0 lead into the bottom of the sixth, but the Tigers loaded the bases with two out. Victor Reyes hit a flyball into the right-centerfield gap that would have been an easy play for Nick Senzel, but Castellanos called him off.
Remember what I said earlier?
Castellanos’ entire value as a baseball player is as a hitter
Yep. He dropped the ball. Three-base error. Tie game.
Rasiel Iglesias, the closer on a team that still doesn’t have a save, came on to get the last out of the sixth.
Because it was a seven-inning game at home, Gardenhire brought on his closer, Joe Jimenez. That’s when a light went on in the Reds clubhouse.
“When the Tigers got those three runs in the sixth to tie the game, I was thinking we still had three more innings to win it. I forgot it was a seven-inning game. I can’t even remember the last time I played in a seven-inning game.” — Anthony DeSclafino
You could understand a Reds reserve forgetting how many innings they were playing. The Comerica Park scoreboard still had nine innings listed on the linescore and there hadn’t been a fifth-inning stretch.
DeSclafino was Cincinnati’s starting pitcher.
He pitched five scoreless innings without knowing the game was only scheduled to go seven. Welcome to MLB 2020.
Jimenez promptly allowed the Reds to score a run on a double, a single, and a Shogo Akiyama chopper through the drawn-in infield. Castellanos helped him get out of the inning by hitting into a double play, but the Reds took a 4–3 lead into the bottom of the seventh.
Iglesias finished it off, aided greatly by Farmer’s spectacular play on the JaCoby Jones rocket, and the Reds improved to 3–5 on the season.
After a 45-minute break to give the grounds crew a chance to clean up the field — it had rained again during the sixth inning — Game 2 got underway.
Daniel Norris started for the Tigers in his season debut. He caught COVID-19 in June while surfing in Florida, which is exactly what you would expect from a guy who lived in a van while driving around the country to take photographs. He said, while he was angry with himself, the physical aspect of the disease wasn’t a big deal, which is exactly what you would expect from a guy who said the worst part about thyroid-cancer surgery was missing surfing time in Nicaragua.
Norris didn’t pitch well, getting pulled in the second inning after allowing two runs on four hits and two walks, but it didn’t really matter.
Trevor Bauer is pissed
More pissed than normal, that is. Bauer had done his full warmup on Saturday before the game was delayed at the end of the national anthem, and he wasn’t happy.
The Tigers aren’t a good offensive team at the best of times, and a seven-inning game against a fired-up Trevor Bauer isn’t the best of times.
In the bottom of the third, Harold Castro hit a two-out single, and Bauer walked Miguel Cabrera. This was Detroit’s best chance, only trailing 2–0 with Jonathan Schoop coming up to the plate with two on. Schoop’s only on the roster because the Tigers needed someone who could hit a little after last year’s disaster.
He popped out to second, and that was the game. Detroit went down in order in each of the last four innings, and Christian Stewart’s routine fly ball in the seventh was the only ball they hit out of the infield. A two-hit shutout for Bauer, which had to improve his mood.
I was fighting myself the whole game because I was exhausted after whatever you call what happened yesterday. I don’t prepare the day before a start by throwing long toss, intense pull-downs, and an intense bullpen session.
There’s a lot of things we’re dealing with this year. COVID is out of anyone’s control, but Major League Baseball deals with the weather every damn day. It’s just straight-up BS.
OK, maybe not. But the Reds could have been 2–7 at the end of the day, which is a serious problem in a 60-game season. Instead, they were 4–5 and still right in the middle of a 16-team playoff race.
More importantly, they had swept the day without Joey Votto, who spent the day in COVID-19 quarantine after showing symptoms Saturday night.
The good news was Votto tested negative on Saturday and again on Tuesday, so was able to return to … yes, Trevor?
The league needs to be consistent on how they handle these things. We’ve had players miss games and they are just out while guys on other teams are going to miss games and the league postpones the games. You can’t punish one team that has to play without its best player and other teams just get delayed and come back when their players are healthier and ready to go.
There’s a reason he wears a “Bauer For Commissioner” t-shirt.
So that was the end of my return to work. It was a long day in an empty suite, but that’s life in 2020. You have to sacrifice fun for safety, and if that meant wearing a mask and watching the games by myself, it’s OK. There will be normal games again in 2021.
I really missed the adrenaline rush of writing about big games on deadline. Sports aren’t life or death, but they do provide a distraction to the grim reality outside the stadiums. I don’t think MLB’s plan is going to work — my next game was supposed to be between the Tigers and Cardinals, and the whole series has been postponed because of the outbreak among St. Louis players — but it can be done. European soccer and East Asian baseball proved that, and the NBA and NHL bubbles are working thus far.
Slowly, we will find ways to adapt and get closer to normality.
One of those ways is crucial. If you’ve read this far and enjoyed your time, I have a small request.
Wear a mask. Please. My high-risk family appreciates it.