When the Orioles traded lefty Richard Bleier to the Marlins on Aug. 1, he expected some logistical challenges: moving homes, stocking a new locker, learning where the bathrooms are. But baseball in 2020 has provided at least one additional hurdle.
“The biggest thing is that with a mask, I’m like, Who is that again?” says Bleier. “I can only see half of someone’s face. I’m trying to figure out who all these people are. I’ll have the same conversation three times in a row because I think I’m talking to someone new.”
Joining a new club can be challenging in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. As Monday’s trade deadline nears and more players change teams, they are learning how hard it can be to feel like one of the guys when you can’t get near any of the other guys.
MLB’s coronavirus-prevention protocols require players to wear masks and stay at least six feet apart except when on the field. On the road, they cannot go out for dinner or crowd into someone’s room to play video games. The regulations are important to protect the health of everyone involved as the pandemic continues to thrash the United States, but they also pose difficulties. Some players on teams that may be buyers at the deadline have begun to think about how they will make new teammates feel at home and concluded there aren’t many options.
“It’s weird,” says Orioles righty Hunter Harvey. “You’re not really supposed to high-five or anything, so it’s gonna be different, if we get some new guys, to welcome them in. Just talk from a distance and try to bring them in that way.”
“You just try to have fun with the whole situation,” says Mets right fielder Michael Conforto. “You give guys crap for being a little too close to each other. You make jokes about it. You try to make light of the situation that obviously isn’t ideal.”
“Greet them with kind eyes?” says Brewers lefty Brett Anderson.
Bleier is on his seventh team, so he knows how hard it can be to drop in cold. “Being traded, especially at the deadline, you’re getting traded to a team with the intentions of improving the team,” he says. “You’re coming over and replacing somebody they think isn’t doing a good enough job. ‘They traded for him, so he has to be good’—you feel that pressure. ‘My new team brought me here to perform, so I have to get it done.’ You also have people who were once pitching those innings or getting those at bats who now aren’t because you’re there. For big trade deadline acquisitions coming over, it’s like, ‘Hey, get it done’. So you have to try to make people feel as comfortable as possible.”
In Bleier’s case, he was actually in the majority as a new guy: Miami was in the throes of a COVID outbreak, and he was one of 18 players brought in to shore up the roster. Everyone was introducing himself to everyone else. But most of the new additions will trickle in one at a time.
Even the arrival process can be fraught. When righthander Brady Lail was selected off waivers by the Mariners from the White Sox on Aug. 10, his new team was playing in Arlington, Texas, but officials booked him on a commercial flight to their next stop, Houston, to give him time to quarantine. (He was worried about possible exposure to the virus on the plane but was relieved when he had a row to himself in first class.) There was a COVID test waiting for him as he walked into the hotel lobby, and he spent three days locked in his room waiting for the results. The closest he got to human contact was when the bellman left Uber Eats deliveries at his door. The test came back negative, and he took another, rapid one when he joined the team.
Meanwhile, lefthander Brooks Raley was undertaking an even more stressful journey. He spends offseasons in College Station, Texas, so when the Reds traded him to the Astros on Aug. 9, he and his wife, Rachel, decided to take their three young daughters home. That’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight or a 16-hour drive. He heard he’d been traded at 5 or 6 p.m. They packed overnight and loaded the girls—a 3-year-old and twin 11-month-olds—into the car, stopping only twice for gas. They got home in time to put the kids to bed, and Raley was up at 5 the next morning to drive to Houston in time for his 7:30 a.m. rapid test. He waited out the results in a hotel room, then received clearance to report to Minute Maid Park. Seventeen hours after dragging himself out of bed and 46 hours after first buckling his seatbelt, he recorded the final out of the 10th inning against the Giants.
“I did some elbow bumps,” he says.
That’s about as close as the new guys can get to their teammates. Most teams allow only one person per table in the food room, so any conversation there is yelled across the room. On the road, many teams prohibit players and staff from leaving their hotel rooms, so they can’t even fall into conversation in the elevator. On bus and plane rides, players have a row to themselves or an empty seat on either side and are encouraged not to get up. (On some teams, row-mates must stagger their eating so that both people do not have their masks off at the same time.) Even the clubhouse, usually the place in the world where players feel most comfortable, has become an awkward environment, with players in every other locker and everyone trying to make himself understood through a mask. And it clears out faster than it ever has—players must leave the park 90 minutes after the final pitch.
So the new guys stealthily wait until someone they don’t quite recognize has walked by, then whip around to read the name on the back of his jersey. They yell jokes across the clubhouse and field. They wait to be invited to the group texts. (It took Lail about a day and a half to make the cut. “Once they added me, I was like, ‘We’re good,’” he says.)
And they try to keep perspective. “There’s a lot worse things happening,” says Bleier. “I’ll have plenty of time to make friends next year.”