Questions abound as report dates near

We’ve entered a new month that draws us closer to the Feb. 16 report date for Orioles pitchers and catchers. The equipment truck left Camden Yards on Wednesday to begin the 1,000 mile journey to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla.

And yet, we still aren’t certain that Major League Baseball is offering a full spring training and 162-game regular season. There are assumptions, hope and the ever-present possibility that ownership and the union will be unable to agree on crucial points.

Reports surfaced yesterday that MLB has proposed a 154-game schedule with full pay, delayed a month and extended only a week. And with expanded playoffs and universal designated hitter.

ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that spring training would begin March 22 and the regular season April 28.

The union would need to approve it, of course. USA Today cited sources yesterday saying the union will reject the proposal.

Rules for media access remain in the formative stages. MLB seems intent on allowing only Zoom interviews with no face-to-face interactions. Otherwise, each team apparently can decide whether to grant access to workout fields, though that also could change.

What seems clear is that the tier system is returning in 2021. Media permitted on the back fields will be required to use a path that doesn’t intersect with players, staff and others from other tiers. Just like the entrances, exits and parking at Camden Yards during the 2020 regular season.

Don’t succumb to tier pressure.

Some teams apparently are going to close the workouts to media and only allow attendance at exhibition games, though I’m working on information coming prior to yesterday’s update. Some teams may close the press boxes and space reporters and others in the auxiliary sections.

In case anyone actually thought 2021 would bring a return to normal sports coverage and activities.

Most important, of course, is player access to camps. Including the Double-A and Single-A groups that will represent the second wave.

Thumbnail image for Elias-Stands-with-Radar-Gun-Sidebar.jpgThe Orioles will keep preparing as though there won’t be delays, stoppages, disruptions and anything else that resembles the 2020 spring training and regular season. Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said on his Zoom call last week that the expectation is “a really, really long, if not a complete, full season this year.”

In other words, if not 162, a heck of a lot more than 60.

“I think it’s going to be way, way, way different than last year,” he said.

No prediction is made without the caveat that a pandemic can stomp out a person’s optimism with brute force. It’s too unpredictable.

Did anyone think on March 12 that the shutdown would last as long as it did and impact the sport to such a high degree?

I’ll go back again to that day and the veteran player who called me over to his truck as he began an aborted trip to Fort Myers, lowered the window and asked, “Do you think everyone is overreacting to this?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Perhaps it was just wishful thinking.

Pure ignorance also could explain it.

Pitchers and position players understand the importance this month of blocking out the what-ifs. As far as they’re concerned, spring training and the season are a full-go. The clock is spun back to 2019.

“I think the more you prepare as though it is a regular season, the better you’ll be,” said pitcher Thomas Eshelman. “If you prepare for a 60-game season, you’re going to get caught with your pants down and risk getting hurt. You have to prepare like all systems are go and you can always pull back on the reins a little bit and adjust for a shorter season.

“You definitely have to prepare for longevity in a season and make sure that you’re ready because it comes fast.”

I’m prepared for another heavy dose of Zoom interviews and life as a stay-at-home sportswriter. Except for those nights when I’m allowed inside Camden Yards and follow the maze that leads directly to the press box.

Tiers of a clown, when there’s no one around.

Until we reach opening day, which is supposed to happen April 1 in Boston, I’ll attempt to track from whatever distance how manager Brandon Hyde fills out his rotation. He isn’t handing jobs to rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer. He knows that they’ve earned their statuses as favorites, but they have to seize the opportunities.

I’ll track how Hyde slots his hitters and try to avoid overreacting to his early lineups.

I’ll track the battle for utility jobs, having a firmer grasp on it after knowing the roster sizes for opening day. Same with the bullpen.

I’ll track the two Rule 5 picks, pitchers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, and try to determine their chances of heading north. One is much more likely than two.

I’ll work in Adley Rutschman’s name as much as possible, just to increase my traffic.

I’ll have to take the word of anyone claiming that new shortstop Freddy Galvis “fits right in” with his new teammates and blends in the clubhouse, since I won’t be allowed inside it.

I’ll wonder about the emotions filling it after Trey Mancini walks inside for the first time since leaving camp last March and undergoing surgery for Stage 3 colon cancer.

Hyde has been thinking about it. I’ll need someone to give me a detailed account.

Note: The passing late Saturday night of MASN’s Mel Antonen due to a rare acute autoimmune disease and complications from COVID-19 was heartbreaking news to his friends and colleagues in the industry. A punch in the gut that left us doubled over and gasping for air.

He fought for more than a year and the prognosis was grim, but there was no way to properly brace for it. With eyes wide open, we were still blindsided.

Mel and I spoke on the phone about a week ago. He sounded tired, but optimistic, saying his “numbers” were much better and he would have moved from his hospital bed to a rehab facility if not for an infection discovered by his doctors. Typical of the roller coaster that Mel kept riding.

He asked whether I could get him a Baseball Writers’ Association of America card for 2021. I replied that I already made the arrangements. He asked how I was doing, how others at MASN were doing.

This is a cynical business, but the negativity couldn’t touch Mel. He was a friend to so many of us. Always upbeat, always ready with a quip, always eager to help out. It was, for lack of a better word, always comfortable being around him.

He was the guy you enjoyed seeing in the press box, the media workroom or the studio. It became a tradition of sorts for me to walk into the workroom at the winter meetings early each day and find him already in his seat, ready to pass along any information he dug up - never wanting credit for it - and asking what I heard. Then we’d do a couple of interviews in the lobby for MASN programming, always laughing before, during and after.

Mel and I sat in the same row of the Camden Yards press box, with seats at the end of our respective sections. No one in between us unless a visitor wandered over, usually to chat with Mel.

We shared a love of the Minnesota Vikings, which made more sense for Mel, since he was a native of South Dakota. One of my last texts to him stressed how badly he needed to get home so we could watch the Vikings together in the Super Bowl. It just wasn’t going to happen in 2021. He’d need to stay healthy and stick around a lot longer.

Mel Richard Antonen is survived by his son, Emmett, 14, and his wife, Lisa Nipp, a photojournalist, whom he married in 2001. He adored them. His greatest sources of pride.

He was only 64.

He had a lot more living to do.

Mel’s final column for, written after the Dodgers won the World Series in late October, ended with him writing, “World Series 2021 prediction: The Padres in six over the White Sox.”

It’s so unfair, so cruel, that he won’t be around to see it. Or the Vikings finally win a Super Bowl.

RIP, my friend.

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