KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The morning dawned bright and sunny over Kauffman Stadium, just to the east of downtown Kansas City. The outfield grass was a perfectly manicured ocean of green, the infield dirt brushed as if by a fine-toothed comb. In the air was a pervasive feeling of spring, of hope and opportunity and new beginnings.
All that was missing was the crack of a bat and the sound of leather hitting a mitt.
This was supposed to be the first opening day for the Kansas City Royals under new owner John Sherman, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for the local businessman. He had purchased the club late last year from longtime owner David Glass, and the former season ticket-holder was looking forward to seeing his rebuilding franchise on the field.
Instead, the stadium sat empty as the outbreak of the new coronavirus brings sports to a standstill, and amid the continuing uncertainty whether baseball will be played at all this season.
“We wish that we were playing baseball today,” Sherman told The Associated Press in an email, “but we are rightly prioritizing other things for the greater good. We are focused on keeping our people safe — our families, our associates, our players and coaches and our fans. We also want to be present in our community helping those who need it the most."
So rather than giving fans a couple of hours of entertainment — rather than Salvador Perez throwing out a runner, Alex Gordon making a diving grab in left field, Adalberto Mondesi ripping a double into the gap — the club spent opening day launching the Royals Respond initiative to help the Kansas City community deal with the virus outbreak.
The Royals created a website along with The University of Kansas Heath System that provides guidelines on hygiene and slowing the rate of transmission. Their charitable arm has developed a fund to support local nonprofits caring for those affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and grants supported by fans will be given to Harvesters, The Community Food Network, Don Bosco Center's Meals on Wheels program, and a myriad other food pantries and community outreach organizations.
Several players have gotten in on the action, too. Perez filmed a public service announcement that encourages fans to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while they're washing their hands. New manager Mike Matheny, who was looking forward to opening day as much as anyone, joined several other players in a series of PSAs.
“Obviously you start seeing some of the other things that have been canceled,” Matheny said, “and you know that's going to have an effect on a lot of different people in a lot of different areas. You have to also realize people are trying to do the right thing and with that in mind, it's hard to go down the road too far. We're going to do the right thing for everyone involved.”
For now, that means putting baseball on hold for something far more important.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently announced each big league club has committed $1 million to help assist thousands of ballpark employees who would have spent Thursday selling hot dogs and beer and other souvenirs. Most are paid on a per-game basis, and that means any cut in the schedule would mean a significant loss of income.
“It's a complete effort,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “From a united baseball front, we're all doing everything we can to support what commissioner Manfred has implemented at this point in time.”
Manfred said in an interview Wednesday he hopes baseball can begin preparing for an abbreviated season at some point in May. But pinpointing a date remains impossible as executives walk a fine line between starting as soon as possible — each day missed means millions in lost revenue — and as soon as experts determine that it's safe.
In the meantime, there are dozens of other details to work out: whether players who are set to be free agents after 2020 are still granted that opportunity; when the trade deadline would occur during a shortened season; would there be an increase in doubleheaders or a decrease in off-days; extending the season into October or November, when weather usually becomes an issue; and the possibility of an expanded playoffs this season.
Those are all issues that MLB and its players' association are trying to work out as opening day comes and goes.
“We're not even going to hypotheticals at this point,” Moore said. “Right now we're just focused on what commissioner Manfred indicated, and our players are doing very well mentally and very well physically, and they understand they have a moral responsibility, if you will, to do what's right for our community.”
That means an empty ballpark on what has become an unofficial holiday in America. It means empty parking lots, replays of old games on television, and an indefinite wait for Sherman before he can see his very own team take the field.
“Of course we — like everyone — want to get back to the game we love. We look forward to a new opening day,” the Royals' new owner said. “In the meantime, we are carrying out our responsibility to do the things that will get us back not just to baseball but to our lives and to our communities.”
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