ATLANTA — July 4, 2017: Freddie Freeman makes a faster-than-expected return from a broken wrist suffered in May and plays … third base? Really? (Yes. Really. To make room for the legendary Matt Adams at first base. The Braves lost to Houston that night, 16-4.)
July 4, 2020: Manager Brian Snitker announces that Freddie Freeman, face of the franchise, is among four Braves who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Such is our wretched new world.
True confession: Many of us media types went on Freddie Alert when the Braves announced Thursday that the face of the franchise wouldn’t be among Restart Day 1’s Zoom interviewees. (Cole Hamels, who has never thrown a pitch for the Braves, went first. Dansby Swanson followed.) On Friday afternoon, the Braves informed us Saturday’s designated speaker would be Nick Markakis. We all went, “Uh, oh.”
For the uninitiated, Freeman has followed in the estimable footsteps of Brian McCann and Chipper Jones to become team spokesman. Like those worthies, Freeman speaks to a media gaggle before almost every game, and baseball teams play a lot of games. (Most years, anyway.) He does this willingly. He knows it comes with the territory. For the Braves to be two days into anything and us not hear from Freddie … well, something had to be up.
Now it’s confirmed. Freeman is at home with a fever and, according to Snitker, is “not feeling great. It could be a while before we get him back.” Two of the three other positive-testing Braves — Will Smith and Touki Toussaint — are said to be asymptomatic. Pete Kozma, stationed in the Gwinnett camp, has a fever.
MLB announced Friday that 31 players had tested positive. Snitker said he thought the total would be higher, but still: On average, that’s one per team. Players hadn’t been together as a group since March 12, the day baseball shut down. Now they’re together. The sport is taking every possible precaution to avoid an outbreak, but some things might prove impossible.
Snitker met with his players — in small groups — Saturday to discuss developments. “This is real,” he said he told them. “This is a real thing.” He applauded the four Braves for allowing him to announce their names. “It’s good in the industry and society to know this is real. This is a real deal. It’s nothing to mess with.”
Freeman, Snitker said, hadn’t been around any teammates lately. The manager also noted that he’d already seen how difficult following protocols might be. “I saw it around the batting cage. Guys come out and congregate and don’t even realize they’re doing it.”
Then: “Every day we’re going to have to deal with this for the next three months.”
The Braves’ Day 1 workouts ran, per Snitker, from 9 a.m. through early evening. That was because clubs can no longer throw everybody on the field at the same time, the way it is in spring training. MLB is demanding smaller groups, reporting at different times. It’s a fine idea. But how exactly will that work when everybody has to congregate for a 7 p.m. game?
Hamels said Friday he was afraid he’d be late for his morning session because it took so long to get through the parking lot, and not because of automotive traffic. Because of medical scanning. In the clubhouse, players aren’t supposed to shake hands or hug — Freeman’s a famous hugger, as we know — or stand within six feet of one another. Masks are required in the clubhouse. Indeed, Swanson did his Zoom session fully masked. (Hamels went uncovered.)
Snitker said players are asked to take their temperature — twice — before leaving for the ballpark. He said there would be days when players are refused admission because of a fever even though they might have nothing more than a cold. These are the steps the sport is taking. These are wise steps. But you really wonder how it’s going to go when teams travel as a group, which they’ll have to do if there’s going to be a season. Unlike the NBA, MLB will have no bubble.
Asked Friday if he believes baseball can play to its scheduled October completion, Hamels said: “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure we do play 60 games. It’s just a matter of understanding what happens in cities. If we can do what we need to do to prevent it, there’s still a whole other city and a lot of people involved in trying to make sure this thing happens that we might not necessarily have a way to control.”
Said Snitker of the early positive tests: “It’s good in our industry. It sobers everybody up.”
Really, though, how much more sober can it get? We’ve been in a pandemic since March. Try as we might, we haven’t been able to wish it away. Our Atlanta Fourth was grim enough, what with the AJC Peachtree Road Race pushed back 4 1/2 months, and now Freddie Freeman is sick. Can we flip the calendar to 2021 and be done with this thoroughly rotten year?
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)