By Barry Blair
It was a week that began with great promise, only to quickly end due to the emerging threat across the nation of the coronavirus.
On Monday night, I was in Asheville to witness the ETSU take down of Wofford, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, clinching the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, and extending what has been a very special season for Steve Forbes’ Buccaneers. On Tuesday, I left for Florida to take in some spring training baseball games. It would be an understatement to say that I was fired up and ready to go. I planned to end the week back in Johnson City on Sunday, in time for the NCAA selection show.
On Wednesday morning, I was back in the beautiful, picturesque town of Dunedin, the springtime home of the Toronto Blue Jays. It is the 44th year they have trained there, the only place they have known in the existence of the team. Dunedin still has the charm of ‘Old Florida’, as they like to say. They have just completed a renovation of the stadium and I am excited to see it. As I drive up, I am still able to park just across the street at the VFW, something I like to do; the money goes to help support their programs, and they are always very welcoming to their guests, before and after the games.
The updates to the stadium, now known as TD Ballpark, are well done, without changing the feel of the place. They have added more seating, along with a walkway that goes all the way around the outfield. A new, modern gift shop replaces the old one. As usual, a large number of the fans are down from Canada, escaping the cold from back home and supporting their team. The highlight of the game is the Blue Jays exciting young shortstop, Bo Bichette, leading things off with a home run. His father, Dante Bichette, a former standout big leaguer in his own right, was in attendance, and actually took part in batting practice. The Blue Jays go on to blast the Orioles 15-1. Things seem pretty normal at this point in the trip.
On Thursday morning, the news is full of cancellations all across America, including the NCAA Tournament. I hate it for the ETSU players, coaches, staff, cheerleaders, and pep band. Nothing is guaranteed that they will ever get the chance to go again.
I am on my way to see the Atlanta Braves play the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland. Will I get to see Johnson City’s Daniel Norris pitch? No, the rotation doesn’t fall right for me. One thing the Tigers do is give out a daily sheet that list the players by how they stand at each position. On this day, Norris is listed as their fifth starter, the same spot he held last season at this time.
Not long after arriving at the stadium, rumors are flying all around that spring training will be shut down after today. At 3:08 that afternoon, baseball sends out a text saying that the rest of the spring games are cancelled, and the start of the regular season is being postponed. This game finishes not long after that. The Braves win 5-3, behind a strong pitching performance by former Vanderbilt star Kyle Wright, their top draft pick of two years ago. He is fighting to win the fifth rotation spot in their lineup.
Did I mention that everyday so far the weather has been perfect, 85 degrees, without a cloud in the sky? Friday is more of the same. I drive over to the Braves’ new complex in North Port, just a little south of the town of Venice. It is a delight to no longer have to fight the Orlando traffic around their former home at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
I am greeted by a sign that says ‘Spring Training Games Suspended.’ They were scheduled to play the Mets and I had tickets. I knew that, but had hoped to be able to tour their new facility, to give you a report on it. But everything is locked up; the stadium, the gift shop, the adjoining workout facility and side fields. No one other than players and essential staff are being allowed inside. A press conference scheduled for later that morning for the reporters covering the Braves beat, will now be conducted by conference call. The press room is closed as well.
Later that evening at 6, the Pittsburgh Pirates had been scheduled to play host to the Minnesota Twins in nearby Bradenton. Johnson City’s Will Little was scheduled to umpire the game, and there was a possibility that another former ‘Topper, Will Craig, might play as well, as he tries to make the Pirates’ opening day roster. As I normally do, I had hoped to get some pictures of the local guys for the paper. That will have to wait until next season.
So, what began as a week of great promise, ends in a time of much uncertainty. Obviously, it is not a good idea to have several thousand people, who come from all over, to gather in one spot. Let’s hope that these actions will help us get through an unprecedented time in our country, and the world, and then we can get back to enjoying the things that we love, such as our sports. Next spring, I hope to be able to give you a much more detailed report.
Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough. His newest novel, ‘The Biggest of Lies’ is coming out soon. You can reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website www.rightfieldpress.com.