An Allegany Radio Corporation Sports Column By Mike Burke

Rizzo assures: Nats will be ready … whenever it’s time to be

MIKE BURKE
Allegany Radio Corporation Sports
Just days before what was supposed to be Opening Day, with spring training shut down and no baseball in sight for the foreseeable future, what’s a general manager to do?

Mike Rizzo, of the world champion Washington Nationals, said Friday during a media teleconference that he is in constant motion on the never-ending circle with all involved in trying to keep a thumb on the ever-fluid coronavirus crisis as best as he can.

“Our focus is on the health and safety of our players, our staff and their families,” Rizzo said from Nationals spring training headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida. “No players have experienced any of the symptoms and no players have been tested. We stay in direct contact with our medical team.”

Thirteen players (on the 40-man roster) remained in West Palm Beach and have been doing “individual and small group” workouts as formal or structured workouts are prohibited.

Rizzo said, “a handful of players” are in Washington, with both groups “staffed with trainers and medical personnel to take care of their health and baseball needs.

“There has been a lot of communication with MLB and the CDC about keeping the virus contained and controlled,” Rizzo said.

“The Nationals and the Lerner family (owners of the Nationals) should be commended. We had our plan in place even before MLB announced their plans and before it became a pandemic. We were out front of it.”

Rizzo also commended the Nationals and the Lerners for contributing $1 million to support the baseball staff at Nationals Park, Rizzo calling the staff “the backbone of the baseball experience at Nationals Park.”

The initiative was directed to each of the 30 Major League teams, with Rizzo also expressing his pleasure that financial support is being provided to minor-league players, with the life-long minor-league player and scout pointing out that the Nats were ahead on this as well.

“Very, very glad to see that Major League Baseball is beginning to take care of minor league players.” Rizzo said. “That’s something that we were certainly prepared to do without MLB’s authority, if it came to that. We did want to wait to see what Major League Baseball would do for us to make our move. These minor league players are not only of great importance to Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals. These are the next star players for the Nationals. These are the next union members for the MLBPA.”

For Rizzo, the minor leagues and player development are everything. It is what he built the Nationals organization on, because it is all he has ever known, as, aside from his career in the minors, his late father, Phil Rizzo, who died Feb. 1, spent the better part of his life as a baseball scout.

“I feel very, very fortunate that we’re able to take care of these minor league players,” he said. “They are near and dear to my heart. I was one of them for many, many years, and I remember the trials and tribulations of being a minor league player in the best of times. There’s a struggle. Going back to my days as a minor leaguer, I played for $850 a month living in Rohnert Park, Calif., in 1984.

“So, it’s a tough existence, and just a little bit more certainty on their part to kind of sooth them through this pandemic until it ends. We’re certainly going to continue to work with MLB for an industry-wide plan for minor league player compensation. It’s something that we’re going to be aggressive with here with the Nationals, since it is so near and dear to my heart and to the Lerners. We are going to work with MLB diligently to get that done.”

While Rizzo is pleased with how his organization is handling the crisis on a day-to-day basis, he is quick to admit the process is also a day-to-day case of “what now?” because of the pace with which the circumstance continues to change.

 “This thing is not in the general manager’s manual,” Rizzo said. “These are very, very fluid times, and they are very uncertain times, and suffice to say, we are all about caring for our players, our staff and their families, to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do and be good citizens and take care of each other.”

Because the Nationals were headquartered in a retirement area, they were quick to act when the shutdown of baseball was announced.

“There had been positive tests in Palm Beach County — this is an older community,” he said. “We felt having 300 people in a small, enclosed atmosphere was not in compliance with the CDC. We felt it was prudent to send home 150 minor league baseball players and the major-league players had choices as to where they wanted to be as stipulated in the basic agreement.”

In the meantime, the Nats, as are everybody else, are in hurry-up and wait mode. Though once an official restarting date is announced, if it is ever to be announced this year, Rizzo said the Nationals are prepared to pounce.

“We’ll be fully prepared when asked to be ready, with the preparation for the pitchers and players being of the utmost importance,” he said. “We’ll have in place protocol and criteria to get ready.

“When we know when Opening Day will be, we will start at that date and work backwards to ramp up our pitchers and prepare them for the season. We’ll have a better feel for it when we find out when Opening Day is and then we’ll work back.”

In the meantime, Rizzo and his staff make sure his players are doing, and not doing, what is expected of them. “Our pitchers and players are in workouts and in constant contact,” he said. “Each player is obligated to call in and report each day — 13 here, three in D.C. and the rest at their homes.”

As for the Nationals’ academy for young Dominican players, located in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, the same operational methods that were applied to secure the spring training headquarters were used for the academy as well.

“We have our Dominican academy players go to a safe place outside of the academy,” he said. “If they have a safe haven to go to that would be safer than being, again, in a larger group of people, we have sent them home for the most part.

“There’s certain people at the academy and here in the U.S. that’s unrealistic to go to their homes. The Venezuelan players that were in minor league camp, they are still here in West Palm. We’ve got them put up in a hotel here because it just didn’t work to send them to Venezuela. And we have a handful of players in the Dominican academy that are staying in the academy because they’re from other parts of the world that are less safe than in our academy atmosphere.”

When asked how the players were dealing with the shutdown, and the crisis that is the reason for it, Rizzo said they’re handling the situation the way they handle all situations that come their way — they merely do what they do.

“They deal with it mentally by getting their workouts in,” he said. “They are very routine-oriented people. There is an uncertainty of how to get ready for a date that you don’t know is coming, so we told them to return to their offseason programs so we can ramp up and hit the ground running and conduct spring training more quickly, which we believe will be possible since we already had two weeks.”

Rizzo said he would imagine once the shutdown ends, teams will report to their spring training sites rather than their home cities, because there will have to be some spring training games played before there is an Opening Day.

When asked how many regular-season games would constitute “a fair schedule” in his eyes, Rizzo said, “It all depends where we are in the calendar. All of the scenarios and hypotheticals will be worked out by Major League Baseball.”

Rizzo, of course, does not know when that will happen, if at all this year. However, he says he does know his front office and organization will have everything in place for the Nationals players on the field to resume where they left off when they closed the season last October in the manner that every one of the 30 major-league teams wants to close it, but that only one ever does.

“We’ll be ramped up and have a game plan together to build a roster for a marathon season, depending on how long the marathon will eventually be, and will enter the season as defending world champs,” Rizzo said.

“We feel we’re capable of repeating as world champs going into Opening Day and it will be our goal on Opening Day to do that.”

Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@alleganyradio.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT