No spitting or high-fives? MLB players must change habits in COVID world
CHICAGO — Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez wanted to hug, high-five and fist bump his players. After all, the defending World Series champions spent nearly four months apart before resuming workouts last week.
Then, he remembered: Those are out. And just like crying, now there’s no spitting in baseball, either.
“The first thing you want to do when you see the guys come in after not seeing them for a while, you want to give them a big hug, a fist bump, high-five,” Martinez said. “Had to stop myself today from almost spitting in my mask because I drank some water. You’re just used to it.”
Things sure will be different when it’s time to play ball in two weeks. And it’s won’t just be the empty stands or 60-game schedule.
“You’ve got to change your ways a little bit and try to establish new routines,” Chicago Cubs slugger Kris Bryant said. “But we shouldn’t be complaining about that because we all want this thing to work.”
Players are adjusting to a new normal after nearly four months away following the shutdown of training camps because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are being asked to set aside behaviors stitched into the game’s fabric under rules designed to contain the novel coronavirus.
No easy task for such creatures of habit.
“I think the big thing is the difference between superstitions and habits,” said mentals skills coach Graham Betchart, who has worked with top athletes across the sports landscape. “If you’re superstitious, you’re probably going to be in big trouble right now. … Superstitions are out the door because none of that stuff is going to be there. For a lot of people, it’s a willingness to be uncomfortable, the right to evolve some of your habits.”
He said players with a “willingness to be vulnerable” and adjust will have an easier time. But under the new rules, scenarios that once seemed unthinkable are plausible.
Someone hits a game-ending home run and no one mobs him as he crosses the plate. A manager goes out to argue a call and gets tossed for coming too close to the umpire.
Under the new rules detailed in a 113-page manual, it’s possible. And that’s not the only change.
With spitting prohibited, forget about sunflower seeds in the dugout. Tobacco, too.
Don’t expect players and coaches to sit too close together. And inactive players might wind up in the stands, at least six feet apart.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “in general, the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.”
So the way everyone communicates figures to change. Imagine mound visits at a distance, with no fan noise to drown out the discussion.
More side effects: Players are encouraged to skip tossing the ball around the infield after outs, as teams have done forever.
If a player wants to lick his fingers to get a better grip on the ball, well, that’s against the rules, too. But a pitcher can, instead, keep a wet rag in his back pocket.
“I’m not going to lie,” Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Derek Holland said. “I really don’t want to have a wet rag in my back pocket, because – this is weird – but I’m probably going to get a butt rash, if you think about it.”
He’s not sure players or even umpires will be able to follow the new rules. But he knows this: “I’m sure I’m going to get yelled at. I can guarantee that.”
Mental skills personnel could wind up working extra hours. Anxieties about the virus plus the emotions of a shortened season figure to create a charged environment. Players almost certainly will hug or pat each other on the back at some point, with so much riding on each game.
“There’s going to be slip-ups,” Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo said. “There’s going to be emotions that come with this game.”
At a time when players and team personnel are testing positive, going to bars and parties are out, too. Then again, MLB isn’t isolating in a bubble the way the NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer are. The Cleveland Indians asked outfielder Franmil Reyes to stay away from the team for a few days after he was seen on social media at a weekend holiday party without a mask.
NYU Langone sports psychologist Bonnie Marks said players will have to find alternatives to habits now prohibited and suggested breathing exercises to ease tension instead of chewing and spitting. Teams will also need to enforce the rules without browbeating players.
But Marks, who has worked with Olympic athletes, also sees the potential to strengthen bonds, whether players share their experiences with each other or simply find new ways to amuse each other. It’s important they discuss their feelings, what they went through if they contracted the virus or someone close to them did.
“Before COVID, the word ’empathy’ wasn’t used that much,” Marks said. “But now, ’empathy’ is used a lot. You hear the word ’empathy’ more than you did before.”
They still need to have fun, too. And that might take some creativity.
Instead of high-fives, players could give each other air-fives — with no contact. Maybe make a lighthearted video explaining the new rules. Or develop new and fun ways to communicate through signals.
“I encourage people to laugh,” Marks said.