That was the plan, at least, before the novel coronavirus outbreak shut down baseball and turned Thursday into just another stay-at-home day. It was supposed to be the home opener at Nationals Park, a 1:05 p.m. start for the Washington Nationals against the New York Mets, preceded by a ceremony to raise a World Series banner. It would have been a sellout and then some. It would have packed the whole neighborhood with fans.
Instead, in this alternate reality, Gifford showed up after 9 a.m. He didn’t prep the fire pits on the sidewalk or water the flowers he never planted or turn on any of the 11 televisions along the back wall. He opened his laptop and looked at the orders that keep trickling in. Walters is offering grocery bundles through a pickup window, and the kitchen looks like a pop-up supermarket.
Gifford lined up dozens of receipts on the bar. The phone kept ringing. There was a tap list on a magnet board — Port City, Devils Backbone, Right Proper — but no customers to serve.
“We’ve been thinking about this day for a long time,” Gifford said while shaking his head. “It’ll happen eventually. It has to, right?”
The concession worker
Mike Cobb would have been a few hours into a shift already, driving his forklift through the concourse, stuffing concession stands with beer, peanuts and whatever else.
Instead, just after 10 a.m., he was at his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., the one he owes a mortgage on, speaking to dozens on a conference call.
It was held by Unite Here Local 23, a union representing the park’s 1,200 concession workers who are out of work. Cobb is one of them. He has been at the ballpark since it opened in 2008, lugging food and drinks out of the warehouse, often pushing through the overnight shift.
“All we’re looking for is a little help,” Cobb said on the call. Every team in baseball has committed $1 million to aid stadium workers who are not receiving paychecks. But because Cobb is considered a “nonevent” worker, he does not qualify. Unite Here is urging the Nationals and the other 29 clubs to pay its subcontracted food service workers for the first 40 home games they are likely to miss.
“There are a lot of people who are currently out of work because of the virus crisis,” Cobb continued. “We filed for unemployment, which I haven’t received as of yet. So basically I’m stuck in limbo.”
Dave Martinez would have been in his office, looking over the Mets’ lineup, checking in with pitching coach Paul Menhart, bench coach Tim Bogar, the video staff, the scouting staff, the clubhouse staff and his players.
Instead, just after 11 a.m., he sipped coffee at his farm outside Nashville. He had just finished pledging a $7,800 donation to the Nats 4 Good Community Response Fund. The team’s radio partner, 106.7 the Fan, ran a giving drive in place of a typical Opening Day broadcast. The initiative, run by Nationals Philanthropies, will distribute charitable grants for access to food and health services during the pandemic.
“We talk about bumpy roads leading to a beautiful place,” Martinez said, using his mother’s favorite line, the one he offered to millions after the Nationals advanced to the World Series this past October. “We’re on the bumpiest roads we could possibly be on right now. But we’ll get to that beautiful place again.”
Martinez’s plan was to call each of his players to say he missed them. Then he wanted to load dirt onto his tractor, drive it down to a battered path and get to work. There were potholes in a road on his property, and he thought he would take the free afternoon to fill them.
The celebrity host
James Brown would have been letting loose on the field at Nationals Park. The club had asked him, one of its founding minority owners, to host the banner-raising ceremony. He is a D.C. native, a lifelong Washington baseball fan, and he was thrilled to help commemorate the District’s first World Series title in 95 years.
“I think about myself as a little black kid living over there in Southeast Washington, D.C., thinking about playing baseball when it didn’t materialize in a career myself,” Brown said when asked what he would have included in the ceremony. “There was so much excitement that I know it would’ve been evident in my voice and my enthusiasm.”
Instead, just after noon, Brown had to work on a special he is voicing for CBS. It is a commentary on a world without sports.
The bar owner
Gifford would have been rushing around, checking on the kitchen, making sure the beer was stocked and the volume was just right.
Instead, at 1:06 p.m., he spun around and asked: “What time is it? I think it’s right around first pitch.”
There were 78 grocery orders and more on the way. He would stay until 11 p.m. to hand them out while selling takeout food and drinks. As he stood in the empty bar, a red Nationals shirt peeking out of his zip-up, CNN played on a massive screen.
Anderson Cooper talked, but the sound wasn’t on. The chyron read: “Global Coronavirus Death Toll Passes 50,000.”
The radio announcer
Dave Jageler would have been high above the field, in the Nationals Park home radio booth, rounding into the late innings with partner Charlie Slowes.
Instead, at 3 p.m., Jageler was wondering whether this online Spanish course would pay off. He has been calling games for 106.7 the Fan since 2006. But without baseball and no telling when or whether it will start this year, he tried to imagine that it’s winter. He didn’t want to dwell on what Thursday could have been, about the banner that didn’t go up, about how nice the weather was in Washington, sharp winds and all.
He has been passing time learning a second language. His son is supposed to study abroad in Chile this fall. Jageler and his wife booked a trip to visit after the season, and he has no clue whether any of them will be there. Jageler didn’t want to dwell on that, either.
“I’m doing my best to imagine that it’s December or January,” Jageler said. “And that means it wouldn’t be too long now until we’re back in the swing of things.”
Erica Standing would have lingered in Row C of Section 103, whether after a win or a loss, and hugged what she calls her baseball family. She would have stopped by the Budweiser Brew House before leaving the stadium. She would have listened to the postgame radio coverage on her drive home to Woodbridge, Va. If she tried to call in, she would have gotten on right around Springfield.
Instead, at 5 p.m., Standing had just finished a teleworking shift and a date with her imagination. On Twitter, Facebook and in a chat with co-workers, she wrote: “Happy Opening Day. I’m leaving the office at 10 to head to the park, and I’m wearing my Soto jersey.” One friend asked whether she wanted to grab a pregame drink at the Salt Line. A few buddies from her section kept the charade up over text. A group met on Zoom to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the early afternoon.
“It was kind of funny and also kind of sad because nobody was together,” Standing said. Then, like Gifford, Cobb, Martinez, Brown and Jageler, she added that she hopes baseball is back soon.
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