Baseball in the time of coronavirus: In this strange season, kindness matters

A chance encounter in a deserted park leads to some socially distanced baseball magic for two young players.
Courtesy of Teresa Strasser

Editor's note: This story happened before stay-at-home orders took effect.

The park is deserted, save for a couple on a purple blanket, far in the distance, and two guys doing a series of strange exercises. One is bouncing a rubber ball behind him, against a cement wall, throwing hard right, catching left, again and again. His buddy holds out a long yellow stick that bends in the middle, almost like a javelin. I don’t know what weird CrossFit stuff these guys are into, but we are here to play baseball.

It’s mid-March; the first week that any coronavirus safety measures are being implemented in our area, and it is also the week our Little League — the pride of Arizona District 6 — would have commenced play. And in our corner of the world, in the backyard of the Cactus League Spring Training, Little League is big.

My husband would have been coaching both of his sons. He even wore his garish polyester coach jersey to walk around the block the other day. “The first pitch would have been thrown right about now,” he said wistfully, or about as wistful as a guy from Philly can really get. He put away the shirt and that was that for crying, of which I understand not much is allowed in baseball anyway.

I mean, the guy who told us there’s no crying in baseball himself got the coronavirus. Now, who knows what the rules are about crying, baseball or anything else?

My older boy, Nate, would be pitching as a 10-year-old minor leaguer and his little brother, Andrew, 7, would be in "Farm AAA," the very first year kids pitch. The little one has been practicing on a makeshift mound in our yard for months, ready to make his debut, to be like his big brother, which has been his sole aspiration since he became a sentient being.

Now, their cleats sit in their closets, eerily clean. Freshly personalized team jerseys hang lifelessly.

This park is much longer than it is wide, about the dimensions of a football field, only in this case, it would be a football field where the groundskeepers sold the mowers for scrap. The occasional empty plastic Diet Coke bottle, caught in a throng of low weeds, dots the horizon.

The two fitness dudes get closer as they head toward their workout bags and sweatshirts, in a heap on some parched clover.

I introduce my boys, maintaining social distancing.

“Our season was postponed,” blurts out my youngest. “We play baseball.”

“So was ours,” says the one with a scruffy beard, glancing sideways at his friend, a baby-faced giant with wide shoulders. “We play baseball, too.”

“Both boys would be pitching this season,” I tell them, bragging.

“Yeah, same,” they say, “Us, too.”

Beard pulls a glove from his workout bag. A glove and a baseball.

It comes together. The Milwaukee Brewers logo on the duffel bag, the surreal speed of the strange rubber ball drill, the thick calves and beefy biceps and serious expressions. In a deserted field in a deserted neighborhood, in a desert, my kids had come to practice baseball. And so had they.

At first, the men played catch, but not the way kids play catch. After a few tosses back and forth, they each moved back a few feet, threw a few more, moved back, until they were so far apart, I couldn’t understand how humans could throw that far, that fast.

My boys also stopped to marvel.

When Beard and Baby Face returned to pack up, Nate shyly asked, “Are you real MLB players?"

And that’s when we officially met Ryan Cook and Mike Morin, two Major League pitchers living in Phoenix, doing their best to keep in shape. I would later text a friend and former MLB scout who would tell me Beard, Ryan Cook, is a hard-throwing righty and All-Star. Baby Face, Mike Morin, went to the playoffs as a rookie with the Angels, and is known for his deceptively slow changeup.

We ask what it was like for Baby Face, his very first time pitching in the Majors.

“I was scared, but the older guys told me to remember to stop and look around,” he says, re-enacting it, his eyes darting around this less than majestic arena, the Diet Coke bottles and droopy dandelions dissolving into memory. “Guys told me to remember it, because it’s going to go by fast. I did. I stopped, but then I had to pitch the game,” he laughs.

There’s a silence as a breeze blows across the grass, broken by Beard.

“Do you want to play catch?”

The boys rush to grab their gloves before their dad calls the play “not safe.”

“We can’t,” says their dad. “Social distancing.”

There’s another pause. We stand in a strange, awkward circle, six feet apart.

“Well,” says Beard. “Can we see you pitch?”

Nate lights up, and grabs his ball as his dad walks out 46 feet to catch. He throws a few, as hard as he can.

As a pitcher’s mom, I’ve seen my kid strike out the side in 11 throws, and I’ve also seen him give up seven runs in an inning. I know how much it would mean for him to impress these guys, and I want it for him so badly that I can feel relief running flood my body when he finds the strike zone right away.

The balls make a satisfying whoosh as they hit his dad’s glove.

Beard looks knowingly at Baby Face.

“I see it. Do you see it?”

Beard turns to Nate with the ferocity of a world-class athlete dispensing a nugget of wisdom. “This is advanced, this is something even the two of us work on daily. You need to keep your front shoulder back as long as possible during your delivery. If you do that, you’ll be throwing nothing but strikes.”

My son tries it, but his body is locked in the habitual flow of his usual windup. He tries it again. High. He tries it again. I’m starting to sweat. Then, something different.

“Did you feel that?” asks Beard. “That was it. You keep working on that. A lefty with a tall frame? Keep practicing, and watch that shoulder.”

Then they coached up the little guy, his big brother playing catcher.

The players agreed to take a picture with the boys, at a distance, of course. And that was the end of our impromptu coronavirus baseball practice.

There are no crowds or jerseys, no Drumsticks at Little League snack bars or beers at stadiums. When the life you had is on pause, the life you have is stripped down to a few basic ingredients: baseballs in a canvas bag, the details of your own human body, a shoulder mindfully moved, a rubber ball thrown against a wall, two older kids helping two younger ones. This wasn’t an autograph hastily given to a child en route to somewhere better. This was a signature written on their hearts, with a Sharpie of patience and grace.

We are all trying to make new habits comfortable. This is no Field of Dreams, but it’s the one that’s open for business.

Keep your shoulders back and your heads up. This season might be a long one.