MLB Rookies and Their 'Weird' Debuts in Empty Ballparks

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In so many ways, it’s just how they imagined it as little boys, taking millions of swings in their backyards, denting the garage door with their fastballs, gently drifting off to sleep in bat-and-ball pajamas. The phone rings: We’re calling you up, kid. They get to the park a few hours before first pitch, stare slack-jawed at the jersey with their name on the back. They shyly greet teammates whose baseball cards they own. They take the field and soak in the roar of the—


“It’s definitely weird” to make your major league debut in an empty ballpark, said Angels rightfielder Jo Adell on Tuesday, a few hours before he did just that. “But everybody that couldn’t be there is gonna be watching on the screen. I feel that support.”

Two and a half weeks into the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season, 74 players have made their major league debuts, 28 position players and 46 pitchers. (Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, who run the Céspedes Family Barbecue account on Twitter have been commemorating each one.) All had to celebrate the moment with loved ones from afar. And they even had to celebrate the moment with teammates from afar.

Protocols for limiting the spread of COVID-19 have brought us socially-distanced walk-off celebrations and dugout-roof dance parties. In a normal year, when rookies hit home runs, veterans sometimes give them the silent treatment. The boldest freshmen will occasionally run through the dugout, high-fiving the air. That’s no longer funny; it’s just good sense.

Some established players have lamented the difficulty of building clubhouse chemistry from six feet apart. “We can’t do much to make these guys comfortable, to be honest,” said Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. “Because stuff that we normally do, as I said, everything is spaced out to be distant and not close on each other. It’s hard, man. It’s hard. Sometimes I kind of feel for [the new] guys ... because there’s no team dinners. There’s none of that going on.”

Still, the veterans do their best to make the young guys feel included. L.A. star centerfielder—and new dad—Mike Trout texted Adell to congratulate him on his call-up. The night he debuted, and picked up his first win, the Yankees bestowed on rookie reliever Nick Nelson the title belt that goes to the player of the game. And everyone delivers lots of elbow bumps.

The newest major leaguers will never get back the moments they are missing this year, the chance to have family in the stands as they accomplish a lifelong dream. But the empty parks aren’t all bad.

“It was definitely weird without the fans,” Nelson said after his debut. Then he considered the opponent—the Red Sox—and how different the energy might have been in a packed house, and added, “Honestly, I think it might have been kind of good to ease in this way.”

Quick Hits

• On Tuesday, the Marlins added 18 new players to their roster. They played a baseball game for the first time in nine days. And they beat the Orioles 4–0. Miami’s record stands at 3–1, good for first place in the NL East.

• Poor Phillies. They were sidelined for eight days because of an outbreak they didn’t start—and also didn’t seem to catch—then returned on Monday just in time to face the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, probably the best pitcher in baseball. Lest they begin to get in a groove, their Tuesday game was postponed due to rain. They’ll resume their season—hopefully—on Wednesday in a seven-inning doubleheader, also against New York.

• The Twins-Pirates game was delayed in the top of the fifth inning for nine minutes because a drone flew over the field. 2020!