Rozner: Listening to Theo Epstein brings back memories of another ugly spring training

  • Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@dailyherald.com, April 8, 2019Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein thinks players will need three to four weeks of spring training once players return to camp.

    Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@dailyherald.com, April 8, 2019Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein thinks players will need three to four weeks of spring training once players return to camp.

 
 
Updated 3/14/2020 3:13 PM

Theo Epstein's conference call Friday night was sobering, to say the very least.

It wasn't his tone, which was calm and measured, and appropriate given the circumstances.

 

It was more the resignation in his voice that was so stunning for someone so generally positive.

Epstein doesn't know when baseball will begin organized activities again, though when he discussed where players will be over the next few weeks, it sounded like he knows we are in for a long wait.

Many players and coaches will return to their homes, he said, which is not something you do if you believe baseball intends to resume any time soon. On top of that, once they return from another city, they will have to be checked for any possible illness and perhaps even isolated.

Said Epstein, "I anticipate the number of players that stick around will dwindle as we get past March, as (apartment) leases run out, and as we get a little bit more clarity as a country, and as an industry, about how long it will be until we hopefully return to normal."

The man can add. He has done the math. We're probably a month away from baseball players being together again. MLB isn't going to take chances on an outbreak, thus setting back the program further.

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Then there has to be three to four weeks of spring training, with pitchers starting from scratch. That puts us around mid-May for the start of the regular season, though good fortune could move that up to early May.

"It's not my place to speculate on (Opening Day) because I don't have full information," Epstein said. "But connecting the dots of what we all see in the news ... and the fact that the players are going home, that spring training has been suspended with the reality that teams would need probably three to four weeks of working out together to get ready for a season, I think you can draw your own reasonable conclusions about how realistic any type of early-April Opening Day is."

It took me a few hours to pinpoint the memory, but the way he sounded reminded me of Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the spring of 1995.

The strike had already wiped out the end of the '94 season and replacement players were in major league camp. MacPhail -- in his first months on the job in Chicago -- was a moderate on the owners' side and occasionally taking part in negotiations.

On March 5, a month away from Opening Day, MacPhail had just returned from a session with the MLBPA in Scottsdale when I ran into him at about 7 p.m. on a Sunday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He invited me into his office at HoHoKam Park and slowly sat down at his desk. MacPhail looked exhausted and in desperate need of a drink. He said nothing for a minute.

It wasn't good. Negotiations had broken down again. Nothing new was scheduled. It was early March. It was getting late early. There was no hope of starting on time.

"This has without question been the most painful experience of my professional life," MacPhail said. "It has been an extremely unpleasant and disappointing week."

And then he offered up the worst part.

"It would be difficult," MacPhail said, "to have Opening Day as scheduled with the real players."

Of course, he was right.

As it turns out, an injunction issued by Judge Sonia Sotomayor -- now a member of The Supremes -- just 24 hours before the first regular season game played with replacement players, put a stop to the entire fiasco, preventing the owners from unilaterally imposing a new CBA.

The strike was over. The real players returned. Spring training started. The games began in late April after a little more than three weeks of camp.

But I remember the total resignation in MacPhail's voice, and Epstein sounded just that way Friday night.

Whether you believe it or not, this is what these men do 24 hours a day. Baseball is their life, not just their livelihood. They plan for months and sometimes years in advance to get to Opening Day of a particular year, and when they know it's not happening, they are deeply affected.

Epstein -- while expressing concern for the greater good, for all who are ill or might become so -- offered a glimpse into that, trying to answer reporters' questions, but probably thinking that we are a very long way from Opening Day, and he has no idea how any of this is going to work between now and whenever that is.

That's not what he signed up for. He wants to see what his baseball team looks like and go about the business of surprising people or selling off parts, not sit around in an empty facility and watch the tumbleweeds blow through the infield.

But that's where all of us are, sitting around and waiting for the storm to pass so baseball can start anew and offer us the spring we have demanded throughout another long winter.

There's just no way to put a clock on it yet.

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