The 3 hours that changed how I view the Coronavirus crisis


PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- When I woke up Wednesday morning I was worried about interviews and clubhouse access. You know, the kind of stuff that was inconveniencing reporters these past few days.

By the time the final pitch of the Red Sox' Grapefruit League game against the Rays was thrown that night everything had changed, for me and hopefully for the players I was supposed to care about when it came to playing a game of exhibition baseball.

It was a radio broadcast, and day, I won't (and shouldn't) forget.

Let's go back to the beginning when the new form of media availability was taking place back at JetBlue Park. With no clubhouse access players were requested for interviews, with some making an appearance. There seemed little concern from the athletes or the reporters when it came to the suggested six-foot barrier between interviewer and interviewee, which at the time seemed somewhat comforting. If they weren't overly concerned -- even after getting the lecture on the virus from team doctors -- why should we be?

Confirmed: I am 15 feet, 6 inches from Kevin Pillar

— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 11, 2020

Of course, it was on everyone's mind, with some of the new rules offering a reminder. But baseball was still the priority, with the shadow of the coronavirus somewhere in the backdrop. For instance, I talked to third base coach Carlos Febles about having to fight the urge of touching his face while giving signs. 

"I'm trying, but it's hard," he said.

And that seemed to be the consensus. Everyone knew what to do and what not to do, but consistency is difficult thanks to the very routine-oriented world of baseball. It's why my goal while teaming with Will Fleming in executing the radio call of the Red Sox' game Wednesday night was to observe how many of these suggestions were taking root.

Autographs? People still wanted them. Some Red Sox players politely declined while others -- such as interim manager Ron Roenicke, and infielder's Jonathan Arauz and Michael Chavis -- made themselves available to those hovering on the outskirts of the visitors' dugout.

Michael Chavis- still signing autographs for fans. #RedSox

— Guerin Austin (@guerinaustin) March 11, 2020

Upon exchanging lineup cards with the umpires, both the Red Sox' representative (Febles) and the coach from the Rays greeted the four rules-enforcers with elbows instead of handshakes. They all were laughing while executing the exchange, but at least it was a step toward understanding life was changing.

But when the game started little had changed. High-fives were dished out seemingly with the same regularity as before, with Chavis slapping the hands of what appeared to be a good 20 teammates once in the dugout upon scoring a run. Later Jonathan Lucroy did lead his entrance back into the Sox' bench with his elbows, but that certainly wasn't the norm and almost appeared more comical than serving an example for how celebrations should now unfold.

The players were trying. It was just that it didn't seem as though caution was a priority.

That, however, was nothing compared to the apathy witnessed in the stands.

First of all, the fact that there were fans in the seats to begin with seemed more and more ludicrous as the game progressed considering the news that had started to trickle out. NBA. NHL. NCAA. Big organizations were already committing to empty stadium for their games for events that really mattered. Yet here was baseball, perfectly content to let thousands of baseball fans sit shoulder-to-shoulder for a game that meant absolutely nothing.

And making matters worse was the apathetic nature that existed in those stands. I watched a beer vendor go up and down the aisles, taking money, passing money back, twisting off caps, while handling the top and bottom of aluminum beer bottles. Seats were sat in. And then different seats were sat in by the same people. Handshakes. High-fives. It was as though these people were going to get their money's worth by pretending nothing needed to change. This was not good.

But ... baseball!

Then came the news. A lot of it.

From Innings 6-9, Fleming started rattling off a string of the kind of eye-openers that made our broadcast shift from a smattering of coronavirus conversation to full-on news reporting. An NBA game was cancelled. Tom Hanks and his wife had contracted the disease. The President was cancelling all flights to and from Europe. The NCAA Tournament was going to be played without crowds. An NBA player was diagnosed as having the coronavirus. The NBA suspended its season. 

By the time the ninth inning came around, almost everything we came into the night caring about seemed irrelevant. Those concerns about clubhouse access or Opening Day starters seemed silly. So did the notion that there should be these games played in this sort of environment. Everybody was reeling it in, now it was baseball's turn.

For days many in and around the world of baseball believed the steps taken were already the extreme. They were nothing. The rest of the sports world -- and the world in general -- reminded us of that Wednesday night. No autographs. No high-fives. No fans in the stands. No more exceptions.

This was the wake-up call, one which it turns out baseball needed more than it could have ever imagined.

Never thought I would spend as much time in a @RedSox broadcast talking about anything but baseball. Felt right as things changed around us. Thanks to all who joined @bradfo and me on @WEEI on as crazy a night as I can remember - and as crazy a night as I hope we have

— Will Flemming (@WillFlemming) March 12, 2020