One year later, spring training shutdown still feels surreal

The Nationals are off today, and there is some strange symbolism to be found there, because exactly one year ago, they played one of the final six games to be held in Florida before Major League Baseball shut down all spring training operations.

March 12, 2020, was a day unlike any we'd ever experienced. It was surreal. It was filled with uncertainty. It was, as it turned out, the end of an era.

"It was tough," manager Davey Martinez said Thursday, reminiscing about the one-year anniversary during a Zoom session with reporters. "It was tough for everybody."

In retrospect, it's stunning to think about how quickly the world changed in such short order. Though the coronavirus had been in the news for a while already, it didn't really impact American lives until that week.

For MLB, the first real change occurred Monday, March 9. The league announced that clubhouses would now be closed, and all interviews would need to take place outdoors, with reporters standing six feet away from players and managers. At the time, it seemed like a ridiculous overreaction. It wasn't. We just didn't fully grasp the enormity of the situation yet.

The games continued, with fans filling the stands, nobody having been given any reason to believe it was unsafe. Players were instructed to no longer come into close contact with fans, though, and not to sign autographs or handle items that been in other people's possession. Again, it felt strange and probably unnecessary in the moment.

By the time Wednesday, March 11 had come and gone, it was clear to everyone something more drastic needed to be done. Rudy Gobert had just tested positive for COVID-19, and Adam Silver had suspended the NBA season until further notice. College basketball conference tournaments were being called off. The NHL was moving to suspend its season as well.

MLB scheduled an owners teleconference for the morning of Thursday, March 12, but in the meantime the games were supposed to go on. The Nationals were hosting the Yankees, and a sellout crowd was expected at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-March-12-Scoreboard-Sidebar.jpg"Before the game, we all knew something was going to happen. Like this was going to be our last game," said Patrick Corbin, who started that afternoon for the Nats. "I think honestly maybe only one other team played that day. A bunch got canceled on the West Coast. But we all knew something was coming, so it was definitely a strange feeling going out there and playing knowing the season most likely was going to be delayed."

MLB actually made the official announcement while the game was in progress. Spring training camps would be shut down at the end of the day. Cactus League games in Arizona, which had not yet started for the day, were canceled. Some of the games scheduled on Florida's Gulf Coast were rained out anyway. But those that had already started elsewhere in the state continued, even as those in the dugout were getting word of what was going on.

"During our game, there were rumors saying we were going to get shut down," Martinez said. "We were playing and guys were coming out and saying: 'Hey, I think they're going to pull the plug.' And sure enough, after the game I get a text message saying that they're going to (pause) spring training for the time being and see what happens."

Initially, the Nationals decided to keep everyone in West Palm Beach. MLB at that point had only announced the start of the season would be delayed until at least April 9. If there was a chance camps would reopen within a few weeks, they wanted everyone to already be in place and ready to go.

Of course, that didn't happen. By the end of the weekend, almost all players and staffers were sent home. There was no way to know when they'd be gathering again, but it clearly was going to take longer than initially hoped.

The same applied to reporters. Despite initial plans to stay in Florida and cover whatever workouts were going to be held, we were sent home that weekend. I can still remember checking out of my hotel and insisting to the front desk clerk that I'd be back in a few weeks. They were about to lose a lot of business, but it would only be temporary. We'd all be back soon.

I haven't spent another night in a hotel since. I haven't been on an airplane. I haven't driven more than an hour out of town. It's the first time since childhood I've gone a full year without traveling somewhere.

Had someone said that day we'd still be dealing with this 365 days later, I don't think I'd have believed it. And yet here we are. Yes, things are getting better. Much better. The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter each day.

A limited number of fans are attending games this spring. Opening day is in three weeks, and the vast majority of MLB teams have been given permission to allow some fans to attend. (We're still waiting for the District of Columbia to make a final ruling, but optimism is growing that at least some folks will be allowed to witness the season opener at Nationals Park.)

We're not there yet, though. And even when we do get there, we will have lost so much over the last year that we can't get back. Experiences. Memories. Jobs. And, sadly, too many actual lives as well.

It's been a year unlike any we've experienced. Here's hoping we never have to experience another one like it again.

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