And now, here lies the novel coronavirus-shortened 2020 MLB season, unprecedented in so many ways. The star of this show isn’t Max Scherzer or Juan Soto. Rather, it’s the coronavirus pandemic. It has altered American life in ways that, seven months ago, we could not have envisioned. And it is affecting this season in ways we could overlook.
“It’s almost like, where do you start?” Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said.
“I often joke, but I think I’m serious, about taking some psychology classes over the winter,” Washington Manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s been that tough.”
Let’s get this part out of the way before anyone gripes: Everyone talking about these issues understands how fortunate they are. They are big league players staying in the country’s best hotels. Even in a 60-game season, they make more money than almost all of us. Their advantages are many, and they acknowledge that.
But we also must understand that mental health issues — particularly in these times, fraught both because of the pandemic and because of the social unrest across the country — can affect anyone, regardless of their means. They show no biases, baseball included.
So consider the realities that exist before the first pitch and after the last out. Almost all of the Nationals, for the entirety of this decidedly strange season, have existed in a world in which they see the inside of just two buildings each day: their homes if they’re home or hotel rooms if they’re on the road, and the ballpark. No coffee shop or bar. No department store or mall. Just hours, endless hours, alone in their rooms with only the thoughts in their heads.
“Which is not fun,” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton said, “as you can imagine.”
Start with the obvious missing entity: families. Martinez guesses that 85 to 90 percent of the Nats are in Washington alone. “There’s too many risks involved,” Eaton said. So his wife and sons — 4-year-old Brayden and 2-year-old Maverick — are at home in Michigan. Howie Kendrick’s kids are home with his wife. Kurt Suzuki’s with his, Yan Gomes’s with his, Daniel Hudson’s with his. There’s a toll.
“We’re wearing out FaceTime,” Eaton said during a phone conversation Tuesday. “And it’s not just your own kids you miss. Normally, if the game ends and we win, the kids can literally come into the clubhouse the second the game’s over. If we lose, it’s maybe 30 minutes after the game. You can go 0 for 5 or 5 for 5, and with the kids running in — Howie’s kids and Zuk’s kids and Yan’s kids — you can quickly terminate whatever just happened on the field and quickly turn it around for the next day. Now, we don’t have that, and it just makes it harder.”
Even for players and staff without kids, the stresses are real. Doolittle and his wife rented an apartment in Washington, but when he returns from road trips, they feel safest if both have tested negative before they reconvene. So Doolittle stays at a hotel before the results come in.
While Doolittle was on the injured list with a knee problem, one of the couple’s dogs, 11-year-old Stella — who had been with Doolittle for all of his major league career — suffered the canine version of a stroke. A week later, she died.
“I was a mess,” Doolittle said. “The timing of it, with everything going on, was tough.”
Doolittle’s wife was able to be in town at the time, so they had each other to lean on. Still, fold such personal struggles into professional performance, and a player’s head can travel to some dark places. Doolittle began the year with significantly diminished velocity on his fastball and allowed five runs in his first five appearances. He went to the IL with a 15.00 ERA. A regular baseball season brings with it mental strains. A covid baseball season — wake up, order breakfast, have it delivered to the room, twiddle your thumbs until getting to the ballpark, get tested, social distance from your teammates, etc. — can make it worse.
“Left to my own devices, my mind will go crazy with worst-case scenarios and what-if scenarios,” Doolittle said. “With the season only being two months, guys that didn’t get off to the start they wanted to, that starts to weigh on you so much more than it would during a long season. You’re concerned about your numbers and how it’s going to impact you down the road if it’s a contract year. You realize that each game counts for essentially 2.7 games in a regular year. You have a bad week, and that’s like having a bad month. I probably panicked. It can get in your head.”
And when it does get in your head, where can you turn? A fundamental element of a baseball season is camaraderie. These guys are used to spending more time with their teammates than their families — which can both be a salvation and drive them insane. In the old days — read: last year — the Nationals, Doolittle said, would get together at the homes of Max Scherzer or Ryan Zimmerman or even Aníbal Sánchez, who opened his Florida house to his teammates while the Nats visited Miami.
“That’s not even an option anymore,” Doolittle said.
There’s no analytic to measure the impact of losing those gatherings. But strip out every single one of those interactions — the bullpen going out for dinner upon arrival in a new city, a couple of beers at the hotel bar to break down the game before bed, a card game in the clubhouse — and the team dynamic has almost completely evaporated. Teammates can’t even sit next to each other on a bus or a flight. Given that the virus raged through the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ clubhouses earlier this year, those protocols can make sense both to an epidemiologist and a baseball player. Only the baseball player understands what’s lost.
“The camaraderie of the buses, the camaraderie of the plane, that’s all gone,” Eaton said. “Going out and having an alcoholic beverage and just kind of unwinding — talk about your wife, about your kids, sharing some things that may be bugging you — that stuff has kind of deteriorated. There’s no intimacy. We give high-fives, and you’re really not supposed to. We do it not in spite but just to keep our sanity.”
That is a delicate undertaking. The Nats have a strong video gaming crew that plays — virtually — against one another, a needed release. But Eaton said he has passed the time by searching “cool things to buy” online. Doolittle, a bookworm, hasn’t found the concentration level to do much reading, so — wisely or not — he delved into more video of himself pitching. Eaton said when the team was in Philadelphia last week, he went down to the bus a half an hour early just so he could stand outside and eyeball passersby. To survive, the mundane must become invigorating.
“It’s your four walls, and that’s it,” Eaton said. “You’re kind of in your own head every single day. I wish so bad I could walk down the street and go to Starbucks and sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and just watch the people.”
The Nats’ best players this year are left fielder Juan Soto and shortstop Trea Turner, both burgeoning stars. But their MVP might be someone most fans haven’t heard of: Mark Campbell, the director of mental conditioning. Since Doolittle arrived in Washington midway through the 2017 season, he said, he has leaned on Campbell every day of every season. “He’s been an incredible resource for me,” Doolittle said.
During the season of covid, more players are using that resource.
“In my four seasons here, I hadn’t talked to Mark about any of my feelings — until this year,” Eaton said. “Usually, the guys are there for you. I had never said to Mark: ‘Hey, man, I’m really struggling. Give me some exercises.’ But this year, I’m trying to find the fun in the game, so I’ve needed to. He’s been great.”
Fun. There’s a word that describes the 2019 Nationals — well, the 2019 Nationals from May 24 on — that has been difficult to apply to this season, where the standings show them in last place. One major factor in that feel: Tuesday night’s game at Nationals Park was played in front of zero fans. As was Monday’s. As will be Thursday’s. As are they all.
“Take the fans out of the field, and that energy that you rely on just goes away,” Eaton said. “When you have eyes on you, the game’s definitely different. There are some people that it doesn’t matter. But we’re all built different, and I think you see a lot of guys who feel it, who can’t get that same kind of energy or focus.”
All this means Martinez’s job isn’t just to decide who pitches the seventh.
“I spend a lot of time just going around and individually talking to guys and just seeing how they’re doing,” Martinez said. “See how their family’s doing, how they’re holding up.”
The answers, in 2020, vary. Put in-game strategy aside. Put the standings aside. It’s possible the best work of Martinez’s three-year tenure in Washington — including everything about last October — has come long before these 60 games start and long after they end.
“You can just tell he’s really aware of what guys are going through trying to navigate this unique season,” Doolittle said. “I had a couple of really emotional conversations with him when I was struggling and landed on the IL, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that.”
There are baseball reasons the 2020 Nationals haven’t been able to re-create the vibe of their World Series run, still less than a year old. Injuries matter. Age matters. Underperformance matters. Clearly, other teams are dealing with the mental strains of this virus-altered year better than Washington.
But what’s also clear is that whatever shaky performance you see on MASN, and whatever lousy line you see in the box score, there are other factors at play. There is no mental challenge in sports like enduring the entirety of a baseball season. And there has been no baseball season as mentally challenging as this one.
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