In these early days of spring, 30 Major League Baseball teams would have broken camp by now. Thursday was supposed to be Opening Day. The season, filled with so much possibility, was on the brink of beginning. 

Amidst coronavirus concerns, the MLB has ground to a halt. First spring training and then the season were placed on hold

Ben Wagner, play-by-play broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, said it feels as if the road has been ripped out from underneath his feet. 

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Wagner, husband of St. Bonaventure adjunct faculty member Megan Wagner, said that at this point at time, he becomes eager for the grind of a 162-game season. 

“From a Blue Jays perspective," Wagner said, “we would have wrapped up spring training this week, and would have been in Montreal this week to play, really, two exciting, experienced games.”

Wagner added, “Do those games mean anything? They’re exhibition games. No. But they would have played at Olympic Stadium against the New York Yankees. Montreal is just so embracing of everything that we do when we’re in town. From a personal standpoint, not having this in my life was tough to deal with. There are few days on the calendar that I get more excited for than Opening day.”

When MLB made the decision to suspend the start of the 2020 season last week, Wagner said the initial reactions of Blue Jays’ players were split. Some thought the season would start soon; others realized the real gravity of the situation. 

“Some thought it would blow over, and in a couple of weeks, we’d be right back at it,” Wagner said. “Others saw the bigger picture and what this could demand from them and our community overall.” 

Eventually, Wagner said, everyone in the Toronto clubhouse realized that this situation is bigger than baseball. Reality started to sink in. 

“One of the players has a daughter who has a heart condition. She is four years old,” Wagner said. “Our manager [Charlie Montoyo] has a son with birth defects. It’ll be a battle for him, a challenge for his immune system, for the entire time he is on the planet. Whether he lives to be 85 or less than that, it’s going to take a lot of precaution as he operates his day-to-day life.”

Wagner said, “It took a little time to sink in. I think that is natural for young people and professional athletes. Athletes are wired differently and have a higher motor to perform and train at certain levels. It took a few days for them to shift out of that gear.”

Just like the players, Wagner said this unprecedented time will be a challenge for him as well. Everything to this point has revolved around opening day. 

Wagner said he thinks it will be a few months until players hit the field for the regular season.

“After chatting with people around baseball and with the Blue Jays, this is going to be a long haul,” Wagner said. “For the global good. It goes far beyond the 50 players and the number of coaches who will be in uniform.”

Talking Baseball

Loaded with young position players such as shortstop Bo Bichette, second baseman Cavan Biggio, third baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr. and others, the Blue Jays have the potential to be an enticing team to watch for once the 2020 season starts. 

The Blue Jays also completed a handful of interesting transactions this offseason. Most notably, they added infielder and potential slugger Travis Shaw, along with a proven pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu. 

While the Blue Jays’ young core of Bichette, Biggio and Guerrero Jr. showed promise last season offensively, Wagner said success for this year’s team will depend on pitching. 

“The Blue Jays had to address a terrible pitching situation from last year that was completely disposed with the lack of depth in the system,” Wagner said. “They traded, they signed free-agents and filled four of the five spots in the starting rotation.”

Wagner said, “For me, it’s not about getting to the sixth or the seventh inning with the starters, it’s about getting a consistent five innings. That will be the name of the game for the Blue Jays. Can they stay healthy in the rotation, and can they get solid outings from each one of those guys? I am not leaning on an offense that is young and incredibly talented. You can’t give up five or six runs a night and expect your offense to perform at a high level each and every time.”

While a pennant can’t be won early in the season, a team can put itself out of a pennant race if it starts poorly, Wagner said. If the season had started on time, he added, “the Blue Jays, with where they were in their rotation, and with what their offense had displayed last year, had a chance to take advantage of a depleted American League East.” 

In terms of the MLB in general, Wagner, unsurprisingly, said he expects the Los Angeles Dodgers to be the favorites in the National League. In the American League, however, Wagner spoke highly of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays starting rotation consists of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow on the front end. Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough round out the rotation. 

“That’s an elite pitching staff,” Wagner said. “There are few innings where you can get your head above water with Tampa Bay. I love pitching, and the Rays have it, man. That’s why I think they can outlast any challenger."

 Astros Cheating Scandal

The 2020 MLB offseason undeniably revolved around the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. It’s a topic that almost everyone around baseball has an opinion on, and Wagner didn’t hold back when expressing his. 

During the 2017 and 2018 MLB seasons, the Houston Astros struck garbage cans in their dugout and used video monitors in their clubhouse to steal opposing pitchers’ signs from the catcher. 

After the Astros won the 2017 World Series, and after their hitters feasted on predictable pitching, the MLB launched an investigation, which concluded in late January. 

The findings sent a shockwave through the baseball world and left three managers and a general manager without jobs. AJ Hinch, former Astros manager, was suspended from the MLB for a year and fired by Houston Astros’ owner Jim Crane. Jeff Luhnow, former Astros general manager, received the same deal. 

And the firings didn’t stop in Houston. Boston Red Sox World Series-winning manager Alex Cora lost his job because of his involvement, as did New York Mets manager and former Astro Carlos Beltran. 

While the Astros’ scandal has been hiding in the shadows of the coronavirus as of late, Wagner said it will take center stage once again when the season starts. 

“I am sure the public relations departments in Houston and Boston are elated that a global outbreak kind of steered the conversation away from this debacle,” Wagner said. “And from a management standpoint, an absolute train wreck.”

The punishments the Astros received from the MLB, to Wagner, won’t have much of an impact on the team’s current players who played roles in the scandal. Wagner focused on MLB’s decision to revoke the Astros’ first-round draft picks for the next two MLB Drafts. 

“Do you think Alex Bregman [Astros third baseman] gives two craps that their draft picks for upcoming drafts were taken?” Wagner said. “No. I am singling him out, but by and large, nobody in a major league clubhouse really gives two cahoots about a draft, because eventually those are the guys that are going to try to take their jobs.”

Wagner continued, “They won’t have any rising prospects. The next up and coming pitcher, closer, infield or outfield prospect, they won’t have to worry about that guy being in their franchise for the next few years. That’s why I think baseball really missed the point here.”

Wagner went even further to say that the Astros’ players did come across as remorseful when they issued public apologies and statements at the outset of spring training. Wagner said the apologies were discouraging to watch. The organization showed zero remorse, Wagner said. 

“They had to show a little remorse,” Wagner said. “At the very least they had to understand what they did was wrong. By and large, there was absolutely zero remorse shown outside the letter that was probably coordinated by their public relations department.”

Wagner said, “I think there’s a larger issue with the culture in the game, and the culture first and foremost of the Houston Astros.”

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