At 1:03 p.m., with a sellout crowd filing in, the Nationals jogged out to face the New York Yankees.
At 1:06 p.m., Patrick Corbin toed the rubber, eased into his windup and fired the first pitch of the first inning toward Mike Tauchman. Play ball.
Then at 1:13 p.m., from the other side of the country, ESPN reported that Major League Baseball expected to suspend spring training games and delay the start of its regular season. That happened while the Nationals and Yankees began a contest that won’t count.
The Nationals’ facility was filled with quiet confusion from the morning on. The NBA suspended its season Wednesday night, the NCAA had announced it would hold March Madness without fans, college conferences canceled tournaments by the hour, and government officials from D.C. to Seattle either advised or ruled against mass gatherings. The NHL suspended its season when the Nationals and Yankees were in the middle of the third inning. By the end of the afternoon, the NCAA had canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
But MLB did not act until just after 3 p.m., when it announced that spring training games were canceled and the regular season will be delayed by at least two weeks. Before then, in the hours leading into this game, the Nationals were left with their palms tilted skyward. No one knew what was going on. Manager Dave Martinez sat down around 9:45 a.m. and asked reporters for news. Max Scherzer, a key member of the Major League Baseball Players Association, nearly spoke with the media about 15 minutes later, right after finishing a bullpen session.
Then he decided to table the conversation, holding it at noon, because of how fast developments were happening.
“Yeah. I mean, guys want to play. We play baseball,” Scherzer said before the remaining exhibitions were canceled. “We’re told that, right now, down here is actually one of the safest areas in the country. We’re healthy guys.”
A reporter mentioned recent news in West Palm Beach, where a person who had tested positive for coronavirus had arrived on a flight from New York on Wednesday night.
“Well, it shows you how rapidly this situation is unfolding in front of our eyes. We’re seeing a worst-case scenario play out nationally, right in front of our eyes,” Scherzer said. “Everyone is responding at their own speed.”
“I think we’d be kind of naive to think that there’s not one player in any one of the camps across MLB right now that has not contracted it yet. You’ve got to think here that somebody probably has it,” he added. “It’s just going to matter at what point now. That’s what kind of the experts are projecting here with this outbreak. So how are we going to handle that? That’s the direction of the medical experts and how MLB wants to handle that. We’re going to obviously follow their guidance.”
Doing so — following their guidance — turned into a lagging wait. Close to a dozen fans did not want their names used when approached for an interview. The pretense was discussing why they were still attending spring training games, and one young woman laughed before saying: “I don’t want to publicly go against health experts who are advising other leagues. Sorry.”
The overarching feeling, among those fans, was that if MLB decides it is safe to attend games, they will attend games. The exhibition with the Yankees was the Nationals’ first announced sellout of spring training. The announced attendance was 8,043. The stadium utilized a secondary parking lot to accommodate a bigger crowd than usual. And while there wasn’t a person in every seat, the concourse was packed with people while many others lounged in the grassy hill beyond the outfield.
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but people I beg of you please do not come to games right now,” tweeted Eireann Dolan, who is married to Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and has an active voice on baseball social media. “I know they’re still inexplicably playing them right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to attend. You’re putting yourselves, the staffs, and teams at risk. Please don’t go.”
“When you heard an athlete contracted the virus, it was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Martinez. He was referring to Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz center who contracted the coronavirus. “That’s pretty hard. I just hope they find a solution, cure. I know MLB is working diligently to people, and they’ve been trying to come up with some type of solution.”
When Yan Gomes doubled in Eric Thames at 2:03 p.m. and the home crowd cheered, that solution was not yet known. By the next half inning, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) declared a state of emergency. A section of traveling fans started a “Let’s go Yankees!” chant. MLB’s announcement stated that all spring training games after 4 p.m. were canceled.
But they kept playing baseball in West Palm Beach, finishing nine innings at 3:55 p.m., while reality closed on in.