Baseball fans spent much of May and June frustrated at the glacial pace of negotiations between Major League Baseball and the player’s union.
Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed doesn’t blame them.
As the Diamondbacks’ union representative, Ahmed had an inside look at the discussions about the best way to bring the sport back from the COVID-19 pandemic. After weeks of dueling press releases, the two sides failed to come to an agreement.
As a result, the commissioner’s office mandated a 60-game schedule starting in late July.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, with Twitter, everyone hears everything as soon it happens,” Ahmed says. “I think we need to get back on the field and bring the game back to the fans. I know they aren’t going to be able to come to the park, at least not at first, but they will be able to watch.
“If they can see us play fantastic baseball, I hope it brings the excitement back.”
Ahmed has already gotten some advice about empty-stadium baseball from teammate Travis Snider, a member of the 2015 Baltimore Orioles. On April 29, the Orioles and White Sox played without a crowd due to civil unrest after Freddie Gray died in the Baltimore Police Department’s custody.
“Travis said it was extremely weird,” Ahmed says. “I guess we’ll get used to it after the first week, because there’s nothing we can do about it. The fans aren’t allowed to be here yet, so we’re going to have to get out there and be excited about playing baseball again.”
The compressed schedule will make every game more meaningful—reversing the sport’s usual mantra of “the season is a marathon, not a sprint.” Last year, Arizona started the season by going 30-30 in their first 60 games—a record that won’t get them into the postseason—but went 34-26 in the final 60. That’s a .567 winning percentage—good enough to qualify as the second National League wildcard last season.
“Someone said the other day it’s going to be about the same length as a college season—I think that’s about 56 games—so I was thinking back to that part of my career,” says Ahmed, who played at the University of Connecticut. “Back then, every game was make or break, and this is going to be about the same. Every win or loss is going to affect the standings in a hurry.”
Arizona goes into the season as underdogs in the NL West—the Los Angeles Dodgers have added Mookie Betts and top prospect Gavin Lux to a team that’s won seven straight division titles.
However, the Diamondbacks have a potential superstar in Ketel Marte and three talented starting pitchers in Madison Bumgarner, Mike Leake and Robbie Ray. Newly acquired Starling Marte gives them another power bat while Ahmed has hit 35 homers in the last two seasons while winning a pair of Gold Gloves.
“We’re really excited because we’ve got a good group,” he says. “We are excited about the additions this winter, and we were really starting to build some chemistry in spring training. We enjoy being in the clubhouse together, and we’ve got a lot of guys pulling hard in the same direction. That should bode well for us in a short season, plus we know we’re going to have most of that same nucleus again in 2021.”
However, the Diamondbacks might have the most challenging road to Opening Day of any of baseball’s 30 franchises. Arizona’s COVID-19 rate in late June was the highest in the nation, and it was higher than any state since New York and New Jersey’s peak in early April. Unlike the NHL, NBA and MLS, baseball players won’t be sequestered at one site with heightened infectious-control measures.
“They’ve set up the protocols, and we have to take the right precautions,” Ahmed says. “We’re going to have some testing, and we’re going to have to keep our distance from other people. When we’re in close quarters, we have to wear a mask, but I think everyone will be OK. I’m of the personal opinion you can’t hide in your house and hibernate for your whole life.
“We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate it the best we can, but there’s never going to be zero risks.”
Ahmed knows the sport already comes with risk. He was limited to 90 games by a season-ending hip injury in 2016, then only played 53 the next season after a broken hand. His approach to coronavirus is to think of the chances in the same way as another injury.
“You have to accept it as part of the game and go out and play,” he says. “Ultimately, someone is going to get the virus, and you hope it isn’t bad, but hiding isn’t the answer. It’s time to get back. We’ve got the right protocols in place, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep everyone as healthy as possible. That’s going to mean limiting our activities off the field, but they are only asking us to do that for 60 games and hopefully the postseason.
“People are sick and struggling everywhere. What we’re doing isn’t that hard.”
Ahmed and the Diamondbacks will start workouts at Chase Field and Salt River Fields on July 3, three weeks before starting the season.
“We’re just excited to get out there and see how the 60 games shake out.”