Lakeland, Fla. – Most of his lieutenants already have bugged out. The scouts are home. The analytics staff is home. The media relations people are checking out soon. The minor league side is mostly vacated. Manager Ron Gardenhire is back with his wife and grandkids in Fort Myers.
And yet, like all good leaders, Al Avila will be the last man standing.
“It has been kind of weird,” said Avila, the Tigers general manager. “Nobody has ever gone through anything like this.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down baseball. Spring training is over. The Tigers players voted on Friday to remain in Lakeland and continue training on their own at TigerTown. But nobody knows, nobody can know, when things will get back to normal.
“The closest thing to this I can remember was being with the Miami Marlins, I was assistant general manager, when 9/11 hit and baseball stopped,” Avila said. “That changed everybody’s lives. This is the coronavirus and not an attack on us, but I remember sitting around waiting for instructions from Major League Baseball.”
Just as he is doing now.
“The two situations are different, for sure, but there’s things that happen that are unprecedented and you don’t know how to deal with,” he said. “You just make decisions based on the information you are given.”
The TigerTown facility was closed Saturday and Sunday for what Avila called a deep cleaning. No Tigers’ player or staff member has been tested for the virus. A couple of players were treated for colds, allergies and flu-like symptoms earlier this spring, but there’s been no evidence of the virus.
“The players had the option to go home, or back to Detroit or stay here in the Lakeland area,” Avila said. “They will have use of the facility here. After my meeting (Friday), they had a team meeting and my understanding is they all voted to stay.
“We will see if they all show up on Monday, but my expectation is that they all will.”
The facilities, the weight room, rehab facility, the batting cages, the bullpen mounds, the clubhouse, the nutritionist and chef, as well as some coaches (big-league and minor-league), strength coaches and trainers, will be available.
But the players are on their own. Formal workouts are prohibited. Inter-squad scrimmages, even live batting practice, are verboten. Though it’s doubtful Major League Baseball will be monitoring it too closely.
“I couldn’t predict what’s going to happen, but my only thought is what the players are doing (to stay in shape) wouldn’t be enough to gear up for a season,” Avila said. “With no formal workouts, I don’t anticipate that they’d be ready to start the season if we end up being out for a long period of time.”
So, in all likelihood, there will be some type of mini-spring training prior to the start of the regular season. Whenever that might be.
“I don’t even know if the commissioner could answer that, to tell you the truth,” Avila said. “But I would anticipate it would take longer than two weeks. I don’t know for sure, things are different every day.”
Across the industry, the assumption is the regular season won’t start until May, though the league and the players’ association continue to meet through the weekend to work through those types issues — scheduling, salaries, service times, contract bonuses, etc.
“Every avenue is being explored,” Avila said. “All possibilities are being considered.”
Avila said players, both those in big-league camp and the 25 to 30 minor league players who remain in camp, will continue to be paid their spring training allowances through March 25.
“After that, it’s out of my hands,” he said. “We will see after that what the instructions are.”
With the president declaring the pandemic a national emergency, MLB technically doesn’t have to pay players for games missed. It is doubtful commissioner Rob Manfred would do that, though, especially with an intense labor fight expected next year.
The pandemic has shut down most college and high school baseball, as well, which throws a speed bump into the Tigers’ draft preparations. They have the first overall pick. But that might be the least of Avila’s concerns.
“When you prepare for the draft, you don’t just start in February,” he said. “It starts the year before and, in some cases, well before that. Based on all the work our department has put in over the last year – the work of David Chadd (assistant general manager) and Scott Pleis (amateur scouting director) – we have over 600 reports for this year’s draft.”
Avila can go to the organization’s data base — Caesar — and pull up reports with multiple videos on every player on their draft board.
“We have a really advanced system were all the players are ranked on a daily basis,” he said. “Through this algorithm I get rankings every day, a list in preferential order. So if the draft were tomorrow, we’re ready to go.”
In the meantime, Avila, like everyone else, can only wait for the world to change.
“I will be here in Lakeland for the time being,” he said. “As long as things are going on here, I’ll be here.”