The only way for the 60-game MLB season to be fully completed is for the players, coaches, and staff involved to strictly adhere to the safety protocols established by the league.
So far, while there have been a few small COVID-19 outbreaks among a handful of teams, the league has been able to avoid anything major that would cause a full-scale shutdown.
Still, this season has been downright strange. Already we’ve seen multiple seven-inning doubleheaders, a designated hitter in the National League, new extra-inning baserunning rules, and players sitting in the stands next to cardboard cutouts of fans.
But at least America’s pastime is back, creating a much-needed distraction for so many baseball fans amid the ongoing pandemic.
Chicago Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce has been adjusting to the new challenges. The 1991 graduate of Msgr. McClancy H.S., East Elmhurst, has seen it all in the game of baseball. He played nine professional seasons in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers and Florida (now Miami) Marlins, sporting a respectable .273 batting average in 845 games. Yet these past few weeks in the game have been nothing close to normal.
“Every day we’re finding out how to navigate through this personally and also as a group,” said Iapoce, whose baseball-playing days began at St. Joseph parish, Astoria. “Baseball players are routine-oriented, but Major League players also know how to roll with the punches.”
Iapoce said he gets tested for COVID-19 every other day along with the players and his fellow coaches. Each day when he wakes up, he checks his temperature and fills out a form on a mobile phone app that gets sent to the team. He again has his temperature checked when he arrives at the field.
To ensure everyone stays outside as much as possible, the Cubs built a weight room and batting cage on the concourse at Wrigley Field. When they’re not on the field during the game, Cubs players are expected to wear a face covering at all times. Iapoce said his mask stays on basically from the moment he leaves his home until the time he arrives back.
“There’s no handbook on how to play Major League Baseball and train during a pandemic,” said Iapoce, inducted into the McClancy Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996. “It’s just a challenge every day for everybody both on the field and off the field. Things get better as we move along, and we get more efficient, but you never know what’s going to pop up.”
Recently, the Cubs played five games in three days – including two seven-inning doubleheaders – due to scheduling changes caused by the pandemic. Normally, baseball fanatics would be thrilled for that much baseball in such a short time, yet given the circumstances this season, it just feels a bit different.
Iapoce said his coaching approach has changed this year. Instead of watching the previous night’s game as a way to prepare for the upcoming game, he said he’s not dwelling on what happened and is rather focused on what’s in front of him.
He’s also found that he is empathizing more with his players. He checks in with them daily to see how they and their families are doing away from the game. With a shortened season, some players may feel they have added pressure on them, which is tough in any situation – let alone a pandemic.
“The only thing that we’re certain about is uncertainty,” Iapoce said. “Everybody knows we’re in a short season. Let’s play for each other as truly as we possibly can. Put the individual numbers aside and really play for the team.”
The one thing that Iapoce stresses each day is for his players to remain positive. Nothing is normal, he said, so he tells the players to prepare themselves for things that aren’t normal. That’s much easier said than done, but he’s pleased with what he’s seen.
“I’m really proud of the players and how they do it,” he said. “Some people may think that it’s just baseball and it’s easy, but these guys want to perform and be the very best at their jobs. They’re learning to adapt to all the changes.”
No one really knows what’s next as MLB gears up for the stretch run to the playoffs. The cliché of “taking things one day at a time” undoubtedly holds true in this case.
Even more so than winning, the top priority for Iapoce, the Cubbies and really all of us right now is to stay safe.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.