The charter buses circled the Orioles spring training complex one year ago today and returned to the home site, a series of left turns that would symbolize a day of dizzying news and activity.
Manager Brandon Hyde, his coaches and players walked through the narrow doors, down the steps and back indoors, their minds filled with equal parts confusion and concern. Media packed up laptop bags and headed to cars for the drive to Fort Myers and a night game against the Twins, only to learn of the cancellation before starting its engines.
A few veterans hopped on exit ramps that would get them back to Sarasota, trailing the buses and their teammates. The delayed departure, which raised the level of frustration, didn’t allow the Orioles to get anywhere near Hammond Stadium.
Alex Cobb threw a simulated game on a back field, the last activity of the spring. Bruce Zimmermann was denied his start in the Grapefruit League, handed the assignment and then losing its grip due to circumstances beyond his control.
The coronavirus pandemic already had forced NCAA men’s basketball teams to pull out of their conference tournaments. Now it was on the verge of shutting down camps in Florida and Arizona, with the Orioles flying home two days later or retreating to their Sarasota residences.
Baseball and bedlam intersecting like roads no longer traveled for exhibitions.
Trey Mancini underwent surgery on the same day in Baltimore to remove a malignant tumor from his colon, a week after leaving the team. The Orioles sent out a press release in the afternoon announcing the “successful” procedure, with confirmation later of Stage 3 cancer leading to chemotherapy treatments through the summer.
“The outpouring of love and support I have received has made an extremely tough week so much better,” Mancini said in the statement, as reporters were still processing an announced delay to the regular season that began as two weeks and grew to late July. “I have the best family, friends, fans and teammates imaginable. I am also eternally thankful for the Orioles front office, our athletic trainers and the entire medical staff for everything they have done to help me during this time.
“Finally, I would like to thank everyone for their prayers and kind words, which have furthered my excitement to get back to playing the game I love.”
He’d just have to wait a year.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said on Wednesday that 2021 won’t be the same as 2019, “but it’s going to be better than 2020.”
Difficult to imagine it getting any worse, the ferocity of the blows any more intense.
It’s practically impossible to wake up on March 12 and not flash back to the bizarre and disturbing events of the day, but what’s happening in the present brings comfort.
Exhibition games have gone uninterrupted this spring as teams prepare for a full 162-game season. Alternate camp sites are popping up again throughout baseball, with the Orioles stocking Triple-A players at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie before the minors commence in early May.
Mancini played in back-to-back games this week and is expected to be in today’s lineup as the No. 2 or 3 hitter. He’s healthy, strong and happy. First base is waiting for him on opening day.
The year 2021 already is way ahead of 2020.
But please, no U-turns.
“Just looking back on that, it was just a weird time of confusion,” outfielder Ryan McKenna said in yesterday morning’s Zoom call.
“It started progressively. It was like, ‘Hey, maybe don’t sign some autographs for fans. We just want to try to stay away from any possibility of anybody getting sick.’ And then it turned into, ‘OK, don’t come into the facility, and then maybe in the next couple days we can get back to it and start rolling.’ And then it was like, ‘Hey, you guys are getting sent home because this thing is serious and we need some time to figure out what’s going on in the future.’ So that’s kind of what that was like.
“This year, obviously it’s been really well run. I think everybody has done a great job of trying to stay healthy and prioritize that for our team, so it’s definitely been a good process and just kind of doing what we can to play and continue to bring in baseball for everybody.”