On March 11, the Padres lost a pair of split-squad spring training games. Minor league camp had just opened and everything was moving towards the regular season. Then everything stopped.
Two days later, Major League Baseball decided to suspend the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like that, the season was in limbo.
“It was all rumors, up until the point [the season got suspended],” said pitcher Joey Cantillo, who spent last year with Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore. “You heard talks of things getting shut down and what was going to happen. Once the NBA came out and suspended their season, that’s when the players in the locker room starting saying ‘hey, this is serious. If the NBA is doing this, then other leagues are going to follow.’ That was really the starting point of it.”
“So everyone was kind of preparing, not knowing what was going to happen,” said infielder Ethan Skender, who finished last season playing in Fort Wayne. “[Players] were asking: ‘are they going to keep us here? Are they going to send us home?’ It was honestly a madhouse. One day we just showed up and we had a meeting at 2 pm and they pretty much told us to go home. It was a crazy, crazy week.”
“The Padres sat down with everybody and talked with [all of us] and kept us updated on the fluid situation,” said Cantillo. “Eventually, it was time to send us home; it all happened so quickly. So when that happened it was a little bit of shock; mixed emotions, definitely. [It felt] like a little something was being taken away from you and you don’t know the extent of what’s going on. At that time we knew we were going home, but we don’t know the extent of how long.
“Depending on who you’re talking to and what you are reading, you’re thinking ‘hey, is this season happening? Maybe we will be back in two months. Maybe four months. Or maybe there won’t be a season. There are so many thoughts that go through your head.”
With the minor league season in peril, all of the players returned to their respective homes. For many of the players in the Padres’ system, they have tried to keep busy, returning to their off-season regimen of working out and staying ready for a call that may or may not arrive.
They were left without gyms, access to team facilities or – in most cases – a field to train on. The result was some clever ingenuity to keep things going.
Getting creative to keep grinding
Starting pitcher Jacob Nix missed most of last season with an elbow injury and lost his spot on the 40-man roster after an off-season arrest that has been resolved. In the downtime caused by the COVID-19 virus, Nix resorted to building a mound from scratch to continue throwing bullpens.
“It was about three or four trips to Lowe’s,” said Nix. “We used about 40 feet of two-by-fours and a couple of sheets of plywood; I found a couple of sheets of plywood. I also found these blueprints online and I followed it, except it called for angle iron and I couldn’t find angle iron. They didn’t have the dimensions we needed.
“I didn’t have all the tools we needed. We were at my buddy’s house. [His] name is Chris Betts and he’s a catcher in the Rays’ organization. His house is being completely remodeled; there’s nothing inside. The outside is full of piles of debris and we were using trashcans as sawhorses, just making do with what we have. We had to figure out some stuff along the way. We made a day out of it.”
The home-built mound was sturdy enough to throw off of but there were a few hiccups along the way.
“In his backyard, it was 60 feet, six inches exactly and it was kind of sketchy, honestly. Like the neighbors’ window was right behind where the catcher would be, so we decided to move to my mom’s place because she has a long backyard. So whenever we throw bullpens, he just meets me over there.”
Cantillo had to make similar accommodations. The gym he normally uses is obviously out of commission during the pandemic, but a neighbor set up an adjustable weight room in her garage. He has been able to use it when he isn’t throwing bullpens. While it isn’t as good as a commercial gym, it is still getting the job done.
At home, Cantillo has been able to throw a couple of times a week and has used some help with friends, while practicing social distancing, to simulate the game experience as much as possible.
“There’s a group of professional baseball players from Hawaii and we train together during the offseason. We all train at the same gym but obviously we aren’t doing that right now. A few players, like Tanner Nishioka, comes in and stands in my bullpens. He’s [an infielder] in the Red Sox organization. I have a catcher who graduated from a local high school I throw to and he’s a good friend of mine. I’ve been throwing pens twice a week, in the 25-30 pitch range. Sometimes I play catch into a net in my backyard, without a partner and other times we will find a place to throw.”
“In my backyard, we have 60 feet, six inches. Everything is all measured out and all the angles are perfect and we get after it. We have simulated at-bats and we talk through everything. We’ve been able to keep the intensity high.”
Nix started his workout regimen slowly, as the rain in Southern California slowed down his ability to throw consistently. Now that the weather has warmed up, Nix is finding a groove and is completely healthy.
“I had to take a step back with all the rain we got,” said Nix. After that, I took a week to just build back up. I’ve thrown a 25- to 30-pitch pen and then maybe I’ll throw a 35-pitch pen in the next few days. From there, I am going to try and do an up-down, throw 20 pitches, sit down and rest and throw 20 more pitches.”
Nix has also kept in shape by setting up a makeshift gym in his garage, working out frequently between bullpen sessions.
“I have a bunch of bands, a pull-up bar, a TRX and a spin bike, so I am able to get a decent workout in. I’ve just been doing what I can in the garage. I can get in a pretty good upper-body workout in but I can’t really do much lower body.”
At the other end of the spectrum, catcher Blake Hunt has kept busy catching bullpens in Southern California while continuing to work on his swing.
“It’s been pretty easy to get work in,” said Hunt. There are plenty of guys in Southern California that need to get out and throw and I’m one of the few catchers around. I’ve been catching anywhere from four to 10 bullpens a week and I’ve got plenty of long-toss in with those pitchers as well.”
“I’ve also been able to get into cages enough whether it be at a local high school or some private cages that have been opened up to a select group of guys. There’s been no shortage of reps whatsoever with swings and I’ve seen some arms in BP as well.”
Hunt has continued to refine his swing in the cage, in hopes of continuing the strides he made offensively in Fort Wayne last season. In the second half, Hunt slashed an excellent .291/.356/.426, which was 28 percent above league average during that period.
“I’ve just been continually focusing on simplifying my approach and swing altogether,” said Hunt. “Shortening my moves to the ball has been my main goal. Honestly, just getting as many reps as possible helps to tie up those loose ends with my swing. Once games began — whenever that may be — I’m just going to revert solely to my approach and that stems from confidence.”
Back home in Illinois, Skender has been hitting several days a week in the cage while taking ground balls all over the infield. After finally getting his professional career underway last year, he is putting in work to be ready whenever the season picks up.
“My grandfather has some land — it’s like a big [compound],” said Skender. We have a living area in one half and a batting cage on the other half. My dad and I probably go out there five times a week and just get after it. I would go out more but I’ve got to take care of his arm. He’s still slinging it at 50 years old. He throws money BP, too. I love being home and being able to hit with him.”
Skender felt comfortable taking grounders all around the infield and also got in some work at the corner outfield positions.
“They were looking at me being kind of a utility [player]. Honestly, anything that gets me in the lineup and helps the team win, then I am here for it. I was out at second a lot in spring training. I played at third a lot and got a lot of reps at short too. I was feeling comfortable wherever they put me.”
Staying positive through uncertain times
For professional athletes in their early 20s, the thought of losing a whole season can be devastating. However, players are doing what they can to stay in shape while maintaining perspective on the entire situation.
Skender, who missed more than two years with serious knee issues that ultimately required a procedure to transplant ligaments from a cadaver, seemed a good bet to grab a roster spot in Lake Elsinore. His .275/.347/.366 line in Fort Wayne was 12 percent better than the league average. After the success of last season, it would be easy for the 23-year-old to feel bitter.
“It’s been really tough – especially for me, missing a few years with injuries. [Right now] I feel better than I ever felt in my entire life. That has been the hardest part for me; I’m just itching to keep playing baseball and get out on the field because I haven’t been able to do it the past few years. But there are a lot of people out there struggling way worse than I am out there. So I look at it through that perspective. There are a lot of worse things going on in the world right now.
“It’s pretty crazy. I’m fully back, I am feeling healthy. I had a great offseason, I feel better than I ever felt and two days into spring training, they tell us to go home. It was a punch in the face, but I am not one to get negative about things and I look for the positives in everything.
“I’m pretty much just going to work right now like I am going to play in a month. I have a batting cage at my building, I am able to take ground balls outside. I’m still putting in the work I need to do. I am just keeping my mind right on that point. There’s nothing else we can control at this point.”
“No one wants to be in this,” said Cantillo. “Every time I hit the grocery store or I am masked up, it hits me. Hawaii is such an awesome place where everyone is so friendly and everyone is just kind of looking around on alert with their masks and gloves on. No one is really talking and you have those relationships with people. It’s just so different.
“The beaches are closed but you are allowed to surf, which you can do safely if you keep your distance. I am still swimming at the beach. Just things to do to keep your sanity. You have to get out of the house sometimes. With me being in Hawaii, I am very fortunate to have a place to go out, it’s safe and it’s following the rules. But I can still get out of the house and keep my sanity. There are two sides to look at any situation. It’s about staying with the positive one.
“The more you think about it, it is hard at times. Something you love is being taken away from you. We are not able to do what we love right now but losing sleep over it isn’t going to do any good.”
Communication in a pandemic
At this point of the year, the minor league season would be a month old and the players would be receiving feedback and instruction almost daily at the ballpark. While training for the season goes on, the organization has turned to texts, calls and zoom meetings to observe players working out and checking in to make sure that players are staying in shape as much as possible.
“I’ve called Ryley [Westman, the Padres director of player personnel] and I’ve Facetimed him when I caught bullpens,” said Hunt. He’s been able to see my setup and has given me feedback and told me things look good.”
“I’ve been sending a lot of film of hitting to [Chris] Kemp, [Sam] Geaney and [TinCaps hitting coach Jonathan] Matthews, so they have been looking at it and they’ve said everything looks good,” said Skender. “We’re all keeping in contact and we are all hoping to get back soon. The staff is doing an unbelievable job of keeping in contact with us and just checking with us and seeing how we are doing. I have trainers texting me every week, asking if I am doing okay.”
“The organization has done a good job,” said Cantillo. “But when you think about the situation as a whole, this is not something that has ever happened before. Everyone is doing their best with the information they have or that they have been told. We check in every day, phone calls every couple of days. This is such a fluid situation, as we have all been told.
“When new things arise — which there hasn’t been much information on the baseball front that needs to be relayed every day. It’s that same mindset or message that’s being told to us which is: do the best you can, make the most out of what you have and stay as ready as you can.
Enjoying the time away from the game
Professional players aren’t used to being home in April but the extra time at home has allowed them to spend some additional time with family that they may not have had. It has also led to them helping out with home projects like gardening, painting and construction around the house. With extra time on their hands, video games and Netflix is a welcome respite from the situation everyone is dealing with globally.
“I just bought a PC, so I’ve been streaming video games a lot, after my workouts,” said Skender. “[Chris] Paddack and I stream just about every night on Twitch because there is really nothing else to do. Playing video games helps take my mind off of things.”
“Being able to simply spend more time around my family than usual has been a joy, no doubt,” said Hunt. “I’m focusing one day at a time and helping out where I can. Spending each day like this has been easy enough to get through and makes this waiting game much more manageable.”
“In the nature of minor league baseball, you have a lot of downtimes, whether it be on a bus or a hotel,” said Cantillo. “My sister is doing a bunch of gardening and landscaping, so I have been trying to help her out with that. My mom wants to paint the house, so I have been tearing down some things and helping with the house. I’m finding things to do and staying busy.”
“After my workouts, I’ve played some video games,” said Nix. “There’s only so much you can do to take your mind off of things because everything is closed. “I’ve been able to spend some time with my dad out in Arizona, getting some sun and enjoying the warmer weather.”
What lies ahead
Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that Major League Baseball is looking at the possibility of starting the season in early July. There have been no reports of how minor league baseball would be impacted. Minor league players will still be depended on to fill in as reinforcements for the big league club and top prospects in the lower levels of the systems will still need to get at-bats and rack up innings as they inch closer to achieving their ultimate goals. Whenever that comes, the players in the Padres system will be ready.
“I am looking at this with common sense,” said Cantillo. “If you are researching on what’s happening, none of us are doctors. But you know the season is not starting tomorrow.
“I know for a fact that I will not be throwing a professional inning in two weeks. Now, I don’t know if I am throwing a professional inning in two months or four months. But I know that if I fix myself up a routine and a gameplan for this time, then I will be ready.”
“In pro ball, it’s one call and you are in a different place,” said Skender. “So, I am used to being ready but not to this extent. It’s definitely hard some days to have that energy knowing there might not be a season. But you always have to keep in the back of your mind that there might be one and when that doubt creeps in that there may not be, you just kind of have to shut them out.”
When the players do make it to camp, there will have a shared experience and perhaps a new appreciation for the game and their careers.
“It’s going to be awesome to hear the stories of what baseball players did during this time,” said Cantillo.