TAMPA—Charlie Montoyo puts his arm around a reporter — totally huggable Hazel Mae from Sportsnet, to be specific — and declares: “I’m a man of the people.”
These are the kinds of cracks making the rounds on day one of the new normal in Major League Baseball, with clubhouses closed to the media as an (alarmist) precautionary measure against the coronavirus.
It had seemed earlier that baseball would not cave to the pressures surrounding pro sports amidst a roiling paranoia about COVID-19 containment. But when three other leagues — the NHL, the NBA and MLS — on Monday announced they were shuttering clubhouses and dressing rooms to media, MLB could hardly go rogue.
Although there’s a kibitzing tenor to these times, with ballers pretending to sneeze into their elbows and teasing media mooks about not getting too close. Three feet distance, the Jays PR staff warned reporters before Montoyo’s pre-game media huddle. Naturally, the assembled microphone and tape recorder wielders inched closer as the minutes passed so that by the end of the scrum we were back in Montoyo’s face.
Players continued to interact with fans and give autographs.
Weird, though, that the Jays — like their franchise brethren — would impose restrictions on reporters when there were, before the first cuts, 65 players in the clubhouse plus at least a dozen staff doing their business. Hard to see how media presents a greater risk.
“It’s not a situation we want to be in,” said GM Ross Atkins of the exclusion zone. “It’s become a baseball issue, but in our minds it’s much more of a public health issue. We’re following the lead of Major League Baseball, which has worked closely with public health officials to determine this is one measure that we can take, and one that we certainly deem to be temporary.’’
Not that the public necessarily gives a flying fadoo about access limitation for reporters. Players step outside when a request is made. They continue to mingle in the dugout with media pre-game. One-on-ones are as available as they were two days ago.
Atkins said the Jays have already restricted clubhouse entry to non-media types, including equipment vendors, and scouts could be next. “We’ve made the decision for people that are coming and going … who are working here every day. We’re still working through how we will limit that and limit our exposure.”
Might opening day unfold in front of a vacant Rogers Centre?
“I certainly hope not. I don’t envision that.”
Tanner Roark, Tuesday’s starter against the Yankees in Tampa, came out into the corridor for his scrum following a tidy four innings of one-run ball and four strikes, retiring 12 of the last 13 batters he faced.
“Get the crime tape,” Roark joked as reporters encroached.
On matters more strictly baseball, the veteran right-hander described his outing — the pitch selection — as deliberately “unorthodox,” such as throwing back-to-back changeups and sliders.
“They’ll be like, why is he throwing that pitch? Just to keep them on their toes. I don’t want them to see all my best stuff because they’re in the division and we play them a lot. Just trying to keep it unorthodox, keep them wondering what the heck I’m trying to do.”
Loath, however, to go into too much detail about the why-fors: “I can’t give away all my secrets.”
- Slippery slope: In Toronto’s 4-2 dispatch of the Yankees, Roark was followed to the mound by Shun Yamaguchi. Looking increasingly like a bullpen piece rather than a starter, the free-agent signing from Japan has been having some difficulty with the slightly smaller and somewhat slippery North American ball. He gave up one run over three innings.
“With the ball, I’ve been making adjustments (to my grip). Rather than concentrating on the slippery balls, I think because of that I was more concentrated on the arm angle,’’ he explained through his interpreter. “But because I’m trying to adjust to the ball on a daily basis, didn’t really have to think so much about the slippery balls today.”
Tattooed in previous appearances by hitters pouncing on his fastball, Yamaguchi was focused on elevating it. “I’ve been trying to use the higher pitches, but obviously today it wasn’t high enough – it ended up as a home run.” To Kyle Higashioka. “So I have to make sure it becomes a ball. Those are some of the adjustments that I want to keep making moving forward.”
Santiago Espinal’s two-run homer in the top of the ninth made the difference in Toronto’s fourth straight Grapefruit League win.
- Snip, snip, snip: The first round of roster cuts hit on Tuesday, though the players had been informed by Montoyo, Atkins, pitching coach Pete Walker and Gil Kim, director of player development.
Pitchers Thomas Hatch, Elvis Luciano, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez and T.J. Zeuch were optioned to the minor-league camp. Position players Alejandro Kirk, Patrick Kivlehan, Nash Knight and Logan Warmoth were reassigned to the minors.
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
Sign Up Now
Merryweather was a bit of a surprise. At age 28 with a fastball in the high 90s, it might seem that his time is now, out of the bullpen. The Jays have different plans for him.
“Just because we believe he can’t start and we want to get him stretched out,” said Atkins. “We only have so many innings to do that for so many people.”
Montoyo: “They’re the future, Hatch and Merryweather and Murphy. They were impressive. That’s what I told them: ‘Man, you guys got good stuff and you’re going to be here in the next couple of years for sure.’’’