One more season? MLB veterans may have played final innings amid coronavirus uncertainty

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

A father in Lansdale, Pennsylvania leaned away from his phone and said to his daughter, “OK, same rules. Stop sign to stop sign. No high-fives for anybody.”

Avery Kratz, 7 years old, puffed away on her two-wheeler.

Nine days had passed since the epic drive from Tampa, away from baseball, 16 hours with only two stops, a family record.

“The Cal Ripken of drives,” Erik Kratz called it. “It’ll never be broken.”

A non-roster catcher for the New York Yankees, told the spring training facility would be limited to those on the 40-man roster as worries over the coronavirus pandemic grew, Kratz had packed up his family — wife Sarah, sons Brayden and Ethan, daughter Avery — and his gear and headed north.

Nearing 40 years old, he had decided months before to play one final season, wherever it took him. He’d already been about everywhere, so the unknown — major leagues, minor leagues, starter, backup, this town or that — weren’t unknown at all and therefore did not scare him. 

He’d play ball and enjoy that, the way he always had. Win some games. Get a few hits. Call a pitch or two nobody else saw coming. Win a championship. Maybe the game owed him that. Probably it didn’t. But it would be nice to think about.

Then it was getting near midnight and a thousand miles of road were behind him and Sarah had insisted they stay in the car as much as they could and then it was all very real.

He might not play again.

Veteran catcher Erik Kratz was in spring training with the New York Yankees, looking for a shot to play one more season in the big leagues. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

A man in Wrentham, Massachusetts strapped a guitar to his shoulder. In the quiet he strummed “Life by the Drop,” a Stevie Ray Vaughan song from the album, “The Sky is Crying.” The subtlety, he said, and admitted was challenging for him, was not to play the song, the vibe, but to “make it musical,” to let it be what it wants to be. There’s a line, the width of a high E string, between playing along and getting out of the way.

Two-and-a-half weeks had passed since Chris Iannetta had stood in a dugout in West Palm Beach. He’d sensed spring training would not continue for much longer. Already nonessential personnel had been cleared from their clubhouse. The news hadn’t gotten better after that. People were sick. Some were dying.

About half the Yankees roster had bused four hours to Jupiter the day before. They’d played the Miami Marlins. The next day, the bus had delivered them to West Palm Beach to play the Washington Nationals. Iannetta, who would be 37 in April and had been a big-leaguer for 14 seasons, was happy to be on the trip.

He’d last played a real baseball game on Aug. 10. Five days later he was released by the Colorado Rockies. For a chance to leave the game some other way, any other way, he’d agreed to a minor-league deal with the Yankees, showed up in Tampa and was assigned a locker a few feet from Erik Kratz’s. The plan was to play well and earn a job and win a championship.

Then the world changed. That afternoon, he’d had a bat in his hand and nodded toward the field and asked for one favor.

“Mendy,” he’d said to bench coach Carlos Mendoza, “make sure I get at least one.”

He might not play again.

Ballplayers like to say ballplayers don’t retire, that “retirement” is too formal a word for what is actually a few balled-up T-shirts, a broken-in glove and a stick of deodorant at the bottom of a cardboard box. The game goes off without them, an ebbing tide that sneaks off with their youth and one shower shoe.

Mostly, the best they could hope for is one last season that amounts to a long goodbye, in which the blur of 10 or 15 or 20 seasons, the love of a lifetime, promises to stand still for just a moment or two.

Erik Kratz of Lansdale, of Eastern Mennonite University, of the 29th round of the 2002 draft, of a career that told him to go home so many times it was hardly worth counting anymore, of nearly 1,400 professional games anyway, was ready for his goodbye.

And Chris Iannetta of Providence, Rhode Island, of the University of North Carolina, of the fourth round of the 2004 draft, of more than 9,000 big-league innings caught, had exactly one more point to make, if only to himself.

Chris Iannetta, released by the Colorado Rockies last season, is hoping the 2020 MLB season is played in some form, so he has another shot at the majors. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

When the world is upright again the least of its casualties will be a baseball season, or part of one. The fragments of players’ careers lost in that time — the home runs they may have hit, the wins they may have counted, the money they may have made — will lean to irrelevance. The games will return, the players with them and, like most, and with any awareness at all, they will get on with being grateful for what they have. For what they were able to save. Maybe they’ll have waited a few months. Maybe they will have waited a year.

For some, including two warhorse catchers from the same row of lockers in Tampa, the past weeks and the coming months could mean the ends to careers that had long ago surrendered themselves to baseball’s greater good. That’s what catchers do, or certainly the veterans among them.

For years, the end of every season had summoned in Kratz the same misty reality.

“This,” he’d think, “could be the last time I see a big-league field.”

So, while strange in spring instead of fall, the territory is not unfamiliar. What is so different this time is the climate in which it arrived and how small the baseball feels in comparison. It also reminded him how much he’s loved it. Every dusty, cruel, bloody, glorious inch of it.

“I gave it all that I could,” he said. “If, at the end of the day, we don’t play the season and I don’t suit up again, it would be a weird feeling. There’d be a lot of days between now and then I’d have to process that.”

In the fifth inning in West Palm Beach, against Sean Doolittle, Chris Iannetta lined a double to right-center field. He left for a pinch-runner. In a meaningless game played to the brink of quarantine orders, Iannetta cut across the field to the dugout. The coming weeks would bring for him uncertainty. Also, admiration for the heroes in the paper masks, for the most selfless among us. He’d flown home on a Sunday night, thought first of his two young daughters, then picked up his guitar and tried not to look for the sense in it all.

“After I touched second base, everything else was out of my control,” he said. “It’s not exactly the closure that you want. I still would like the season to resume. I’d still like to play a season for the Yankees and win a World Series.”

Until then, until anyone can know, there’s only getting out of the way. There’s only staying between the stop signs.

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