Gonzaga baseball fans and Seattle Mariners fans have a lot to cheer for on opening day this year as Marco Gonzales picks up the ball for the Mariners to start a season that has been on a protracted hiatus since Major League Baseball’s shutdown on March 13.
But Gonzales isn’t the only former Zag who has been given a significant role to play in the MLB season’s restart. Three other Bulldog alumni, pitcher Eli Morgan of the Cleveland Indians, infielder Taylor Jones and pitcher Brandon Bailey both of the Houston Astros, were invited to join their respective organizations for training camp after the season’s restart was announced on June 23.
For the duration of training camp: Morgan, Jones and Bailey participated as members of their teams’ taxi squads, alternate practice groups consisting of an organization’s prospective talent. Taxi squad players, along with a handful of guys on the back end of each team’s 40-man training camp roster, primarily practice at an alternate location separate from the major league stadium while occasionally participating in inter-squad games at the big league field against the MLB team.
All of those who are on a taxi squad once the season starts will continue to train together at the alternate sights. In Morgan’s case at the Indian’s low-A affiliate Lake County Captains’ stadium and at the University of Houston for the Astros’ taxi squad, in case of an injury or positive COVID-19 test on the major league side that would require a player to be called up.
“When I got the call that I was invited to be a part of the taxi squad I was obviously very excited because there’s only a select few minor league guys that are getting this opportunity, and there’s a lot of guys that are staying home and won’t be able to play baseball this season,” Bailey said. “For me to have the opportunity to progress, try to get better and work on my game was a great opportunity within itself; but to know that there’s a realistic possibility that with an injury or if something happens to someone on the big league roster, I might be asked to step in and fill that role - that gives me confidence.”
For younger guys like these three who have spent their entire professional careers up this point in the minor leagues, the opportunity to participate in MLB training camps for the remainder of this year gives them the unique chance to experience what playing in the majors is like.
But the road that ended in the presence of this opportunity was not without its adversity for these players, as they had to overcome a great amount of uncertainty to keep up on their craft during that time when no baseball was being played.
Since the MLB preemptively shut its season down during spring training due to COVID-19 concerns, the MLB and the MLB Player’s Association had been engaged in labored talks discussing the parameters of the 2020 season’s restart. While talks between the two parties appeared so strained at times that the prospects of the MLB’s 2020 season seemed to be in jeopardy, it became apparent during that time that the resumption of any minor league baseball this year was not in the cards.
“It was a constant battle of knowing that it was extra time to get better so I have to stay on top of my routine and get things done, but battling that with the constant thoughts that there was no way there could be a season,” Morgan said. “Having doubts about if there would be baseball this year was something I had to work against because if I stopped believing that there would be a year then that could’ve potentially affected my workouts.”
Each of the players pushed through that period of malaise and stayed true to their work ethics in order to develop during that time off. They all said it was treated like an additional offseason, and they made sure to get constant training in at gyms after-hours, on empty fields or in their backyards.
All of the extra dedication and progress achieved during that limbo period became ever more worth it for Morgan, Jones and Bailey once they received the calls that they would be joining their teams for summer training camp.
After arriving to camp on July 1, every player had to quarantine inside their hotel rooms for one to two days before receiving their initial COVID-19 tests as well as getting blood drawn to check for antibodies. They then had to sequester themselves for an additional two days while waiting for the results.
“That’s four days in a row where you can’t throw, can’t workout or do anything, and then all of that progress you feel like you made when you’re at home just took a step in the wrong direction,” Bailey said. “At the same time, the MLB and everybody is really stressing safety which is the most important thing at this point because with this virus being really serious, I’d rather be overly cautious than pretend like this isn’t a serious matter.”
The players have since been getting saliva tested every two days of training camp and will continue to be tested at that rate for the remainder of the season.
Within the day-to-day operations, players have their temperature taken twice every day when they get to the ballpark, log it into an app on their phone, and then fill out a symptoms and contact survey so their teams can track their health. The players practice social distancing while going to and from the practice facilities on buses, they’re required to wear masks at all times that they are not actively working out or on the field, and in the club house there is a wide berth between lockers with plastic dividers to separate each player’s section.
Both the MLB roster and taxi squad for each team are broken up into multiple groups that practice at different times, all baseballs are wiped down after use and then are left to sit for a few days, and each player throws with the same partner every day all to limit excessive contact.
Outside of the ballpark, teams request that players don’t go out to eat and use the food stipends they’re provided to pick up dinner instead, as breakfast and lunch are supplied by each team.
“Everybody is taking the health situation really seriously because we know the implications if one guy gets sick, that virus can spread so quickly and do a lot of damage to a team,” Jones said. “Guys are policing themselves really well, and there’s a lot of veterans on this team, so they know what’s at stake here and how to handle themselves.”
Players’ daily routine revolves around practicing at the ballpark for four hours and then coming back to their hotels where they generally spend the rest of the day. It could foreseeably be this way for all players until Sept. 27, but that doesn’t bother Morgan, Jones or Bailey because they’re comfortable with the routine so far and know that it serves the betterment of their teams’ health.
“I’m a big fan of laying low and hanging out, I’d say I’m more of a homebody so I haven’t minded it all too much,” Morgan said. “Call me back in two months and I might be saying different things but basically everything here besides socializing is taken care, and it’s just one of those things where we can’t go out and get sick, so stay inside because our main focus is to stay healthy to hopefully help the major league club if they need us.”
Regardless of the limitations in place that restrict players’ day-to-day happenings off the field, their goals on it haven’t wavered. All three former Zags want to improve their own game throughout the year as well as help their team in any way they can to win the World Series. They understand that they have the opportunity to learn from major league players and staff, which can benefit their own careers as well as bolster the depth of their teams throughout this 60-game season.
“My whole goal for this season is to lock in and sure up some elements of my game so I’m ready to go if [the Astros] need me,” Jones said. “This is a good opportunity for me to learn about how those big league guys approach the game and think; everything I learn from them are like coins that I can put in my bag for when I get to the big leagues.”
Baseball is back, and those who are a part of its restart like Morgan, Jones and Bailey are just as excited about it as everyone who’ll be glued to their TV screen on July 24 to watch Marco Gonzales take the mound for the start of the 2020 MLB season.
“In about 20 to 30 years from now, I’m going to look back on this time with my wife and tell my kids about how back in 2020 there was this crazy pandemic and it was such a weird season with nobody in the stands,” Bailey said. “Simply to be a part of it and being one of the select few players given the opportunity to play baseball and contribute to this MLB season is truly an honor and a humbling experience overall.”
Update: Brandon Bailey was signed by the Houston Astros on July 23 and Taylor Jones was signed by the team on July 26. Both players are now members of the team's active 30-man roster.