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‘This isn’t fun’: How everyone in baseball has navigated a very different season

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A dear friend, a baseball purist in his late 70s, called recently. He was distressed.

“For the first time in 70 years,” he said, “I don’t care about baseball.”

He wasn’t angry. He was hurt and sad that the game he loves wasn’t delivering — it had somehow let him down. I tried to explain that this wasn’t the fault of the game; COVID-19 was to blame. It has changed everything in and around baseball — it has changed how we play, watch, perceive and consume the game. It has changed how we all write, report and broadcast the game.

“Everything is hard now,” said Indians manager Tito Francona, who is as gregarious as it gets.

So is Rays manager Kevin Cash, who said of the experience this year, “This isn’t fun.”

They are not complaining. And you’ll get no complaints here, no sympathy required. I remain the luckiest man on earth. I get paid to write about baseball and broadcast games a couple of nights a week. I am so grateful that I get to watch 15 games a night instead of another episode of “Succession” — which is brilliant and depressing.

But Cash is right. It hasn’t been nearly as much fun. No fans in the stands, players who have opted out of the season, the many others who have been injured, the mangling of the schedule due to coronavirus outbreaks (mostly notably with the Marlins and the Cardinals), making up rules on the fly and the threat that the season could end any day, perhaps without warning. And having to cover all of this from home has made it so much more difficult. Most players would rather play at home. I am longing for a road game.

There is no substitute for being at the ballpark. The things you see there, the things you learn there, can’t be found watching on TV, on your computer or even in the beloved box scores. It’s just not the same without fans in the stands; we have underrated and understated their importance to the game. The energy, the atmosphere that a crowd brings is clearly missing, and it has affected many players, including the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, who, like many, feed off the passion of the fans.

Before this season, I had never even heard of Zoom. Now I use it — with help — every day. But it’s just not the same as speaking to another human being face-to-face. My favorite part of every game is to arrive at the ballpark at 1:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game in case someone is taking early hitting or working out at a new position.

I really miss talking to the players before the game, standing at the batting cage and watching Mike Trout tear holes in the sky with line drives, marveling at the way Fernando Tatis Jr. moves at that size and being dazzled by the violent and precise stuff that Shane Bieber brings to the mound.

Now I am strapped into my home office, with a new at-home broadcasting system, which arrived shortly after I had finally begun to understand the one that I’ve had for the past 20 years. I am irreversibly entangled in my office chair amid a web of wires and cords — I feel as if I’m trapped inside an old golf ball. It also didn’t help that I attempted to do one game without air conditioning in my office. I felt like I did nine innings from inside a trouser press.

And I have been by myself, which is lonely. It is terrifying given that I’m 63 and have absolutely no technical savvy. There is no engineer in the room to help me if something goes wrong, which it often does. I have uttered the phrases “Can you see me?” and “Can you hear me?” into my microphone a thousand times the past two months, like a man lost in a cave. And I usually hear only silence in my ears.

Some TV game producers insist that the open to any broadcast is the most important thing; nail the open, the rest is easy. On Aug. 18, during the open for the Rays-Yankees game, two seconds into my explanation of how the Yankees have dealt with a variety of problems this season the iPad camera in my office studio went out. My audio did not, so I kept talking. I looked like a skeleton floating over a black background, an apparition, as play-by-play man Karl Ravech and analyst Eduardo Perez justifiably laughed out loud at the worst of my many technical issues. I finished my 15-second open in the dark, which was appropriate given that the game has been operating in the dark for months.

Ravy is broadcasting from the ESPN studio in Connecticut, 375 miles away from my house. Eduardo is at his home in Miami, 1,100 miles from my house. Other times the game has been 3,000 miles away.

We have worked together in the booth for five years. We have great chemistry. We understand each other’s body language. We can anticipate when someone wants to talk, but when you’re hundreds of miles away and there is a delay, well, it’s easy to verbally barge into someone, as I did multiple times on opening night this year. The only question was whether it was a block or a charge. Most times, it was a charge.

To cover a game on TV without being there is a challenge. When you’re at the game, with the action right in front of you, you can see if the center fielder got a great jump on the ball or if he broke in slightly instead of back. The constant shifting of the infielders is hard to see unless you’re there. And it is impossible, from home, to watch the right fielder charge the ball while simultaneously watching the runner rounding third base. Everything is easier at the park except going to the can. Now I just walk 6 feet rather racing out of the press box and getting in and out of the bathroom as efficiently as a cat burglar.

Still, ratings are good, so I am worried that TV executives will see that we can capably call a game from home and wonder why we need to spend all that money to send the crew to the site. As a writer, I wonder when I will be allowed into the clubhouse again. There have been several stories this season — how the COVID-19 outbreak spread among the Marlins and Cardinals, and exactly what happened when Indians pitchers Mike Clevinger (since traded to the Padres) and Zach Plesac broke curfew — that would have been covered in greater detail and with greater accuracy if the media were allowed in the clubhouse to talk to the players.

I am worried that the way we’re covering the game is the way that some of our brilliant new executives have been evaluating the game for the past five or so years: We have stopped watching the games. Too many of our answers come from a computer screen, a spreadsheet, a set of statistics rather that what is happening right in front of us on the field. The human element has been replaced by advanced metrics, or as Angels manager Joe Maddon says, “The art has been taken out of the game.”

We don’t see, or care about, first-step quickness on a route by an outfielder, or an infielder who always knows what’s going to happen one step ahead of everyone else. We don’t understand that Max Scherzer, and few others, are calling the game from the mound, rather than having a catcher look into the dugout for the right pitch to call. We care more about a catcher framing a pitch than actually catching a pitch. And apparently we don’t care about the craft of baserunning, because it is, by far, the worst I’ve seen in 41 years of covering the game.

But I can put up with it. I just want to watch and work games, be it from home or the ballpark. I can’t wait to see what a free-for-all it’s going to be down the stretch with 16 playoff spots in play. Every game, every pitch will matter. An unforgettable October is ahead: If all postseason series go the limit, there will be 65 playoff games in October.

I can’t wait. It’s going to be great, no matter how difficult and different things might be. All I ask is that during my 15-second open, my iPad stays on so I am no longer in the dark.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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