Ben Frederickson: Baseball, the sport that never really stops, takes its reluctant place on the shelf

Ben Frederickson: Baseball, the sport that never really stops, takes its reluctant place on the shelf

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JUPITER, Fla. - That's all, folks.

The sport that never really stops has been told to take its ball and go home.

None of that wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff, either.

Get out of here, baseball. Go on. Get.

We knew the COVID-19 pandemic had canceled spring training, and pushed back Opening Day, and put all of our American sports contests on pause indefinitely.

But baseball?

We knew it wouldn't really stop.

At least we thought we knew.

Major League Baseball was one of the last sports to shutter due to coronavirus concerns, fretting over pulling the plug on meaningless exhibition games while other three-letter leagues grounded regular seasons.

And even when baseball finally did fall in line, canceling the remainder of spring training and announcing the postponement of Opening Day, it did so with the promise that no games would not mean no baseball.

This was especially true for the Cardinals, a team that hoped to find an edge during this unknown. Perhaps they still can. But it will be much harder now.

A big group of Cardinals, 20-25 of them to be exact, was planning on punching the clock at Roger Dean Stadium every weekday. They were not going to all work out at once, but they were going to maximize the time certain groups had together. The team's entire starting infield was sticking around, for example.

We were planning on staying around a while to cover it, too. Prominent players were going to be in some sort of on-field action. When every other sport is quarantined, Paul Goldschmidt facing Adam Wainwright in batting practice sounds somewhat entertaining, no?

No matter now.

"There should be no organized activities in the camps," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Post-Dispatch on Monday, the day baseball really stopped.

The notion that Roger Dean Stadium was going to become a bastion for Redbirds baseball during our nation's fight against coronavirus is no more.

We showed up Monday to see what was shaking, and instantly sensed a different tone around The Dean.

Players were packing boxes, not tracking pitches. They were milling about on the parking lot, not the grass. There were more shoulder shrugs than bullpen sessions.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who had eagerly looked forward to the start of this week just days ago because he hoped it would help shift the conversation back to baseball, politely declined an interview request because he had been told to sit tight.

News was on its way, and here came the man who was about to deliver it. Manfred, who lives in the area, briskly walked into the back entrance of the building, where he conducted a teleconference with league owners that pulled the plug on the kind of unofficial camp the Cardinals, Yankees and some others hoped to hold.

"This is a crisis situation in our country," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said after joining Manfred for the teleconference. "Both the teams and the commissioner's office and the players understand we are all in this together."

Baseball is a sport that lingers. It gets to the ballpark hours before the game. It hangs around after until the stadium lights go out. It works on its off day.

That's what made Monday's hard stop so jarring. Not only has Manfred pushed back Opening Day once more, he has stressed to teams they cannot have players hanging around. Cardinals players are being told to go where they want to be long-term, and hunker down. If that's in the Jupiter area, so be it. They will be allowed to use the facilities as they please, but not in groups, and only with a small staff available to assist.

Translation: Closing time. No loitering allowed. Baseball is now locked tight, like every other major American sport.

The only action will be off the field, and plenty is coming. Manfred and the players must decide if rosters are frozen, or if trades are fair game. Owners must decide how to take care of minor leaguers and game-day and stadium staff. The tenor of some of these talks could absolutely affect the negotiation of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. Will it help or hurt?

Manfred is easy to rip. He waited too long to cancel spring training, but he made the right call Monday. Our national health must be the top priority, and the CDC continues to tell us to avoid groups of any significant size.

Monday's sentiment stung baseball fans because it was another reality check about the danger of this pandemic, but it was the right move. Baseball won't just go home on its own. Manfred was doing his job by chasing it off for a while.

"It's not a situation you want to be in," Cardinals lefty Andrew Miller said as he carried a box of baseballs to his Porsche.

If you bought tickets to see the Cardinals play the Cubs in London this season, it's time to start reading the fine print about cancellations and refunds. Chances are Opening Day will come after that.

"I've heard Memorial Day," Miller said. "Some people think later than that."

What does Manfred think?

"We are not going to be playing April 9," he said. "We are not going to announce an alternate Opening Day at this point. We have to see how things develop."

Right now things continue to move in one direction. The wrong one.

Confirmed coronavirus cases and virus-related deaths are climbing. The stock market is crashing. Bars and restaurants are closing.

This is real.

So real that a sport we turn to as a way to escape reality just had its last bubble of distraction burst.

There was Wainwright packing his truck instead of pitching, wondering where he should take his family.

There was Shildt leaving for a long walk around the fields. Not to watch Cardinals. For exercise.

There was Kolten Wong rushing home to his bunker. There was Daniel Ponce de Leon wondering where he was going to work out, joking he might start climbing trees. There was Kwang Hyun Kim headed to Starbucks, trying to decide if he should extend his condo lease or move into a hotel.

In the background, groundskeepers pulled a tarp over the practice mounds.

It was a fitting metaphor.

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