Coronavirus casts pall on spring-training autographs: ‘It’s a bummer. But you understand.’

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TEMPE, Ariz. – It was 80 degrees with a gentle breeze, an impossibly blue desert sky above as a throng of fans clamored over the railing at Tempe Diablo Stadium, pens in hand, ready to engage in one of baseball’s most timeless pursuits.

Yet at a time when Major League Baseball is aiming to increase engagement, its most basic and perhaps most human act of player-fan interaction was under an invisible siege.

The autograph – an occasional annoyance for player, a forever memento for the fan – is an endangered species this spring due in large part to fears over coronavirus, as MLB joins other leagues and entities in responding to the spread of the disease.

Saturday morning, as fans began filing into and around the Los Angeles Angels’ spring home, the major league club was in a meeting with its medical staff, learning specifics of MLB’s recommendations.

Later, a throng of fans holding balls and notebooks and pictures for their heroes assembled near the clubhouse were left mostly wanting.

“It’s a bummer,” says Tim Mackley, a 48-year-old Angels fan who drove nearly 400 miles from Hawthorne, California, for his annual spring training pilgrimage. “But you understand.”  

Los Angeles Angels’ Taylor Ward has continued to sign autographs. (Photo: Charlie Riedel, AP)

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For most of Saturday’s pregame, Angels utilityman Taylor Ward was the lone player to oblige, signing a wide variety of items. He didn’t consciously keep his batting gloves on while signing, but was glad that he did.

“They want us to make sure we’re fully informed, and that they’re being updated constantly and have their own task force they’ve put together to really handle this thing and contain it the best they can for us, as athletes and professional players,” Ward said of Saturday’s briefing.

“I don’t want to totally be like, ‘No,’ to the fans, because that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this. Obviously, we want to be safe as well, but you just have to be smart about it.”

What’s “smart” can certainly vary from event to event, sport to sport and site to site. The Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals announced that they will bar players from signing autographs and instead distribute pre-signed items to fans.

Both teams train in Florida, where the Department of Health announced on Friday that two patients have died from coronavirus and two new cases were reported in Broward County; another patient was released from a Sarasota hospital.

“As a precautionary measure for both our players and fans, we are making adjustments to this (autograph-signing) experience based on recommendations from the CDC,” the Phillies said in a statement. “Security personnel will be available to assist players in the distribution of these pre-signed items before the start of our home games here in Clearwater.”

#Phillies statement regarding signing of autographs in spring training following CDC recommendations. pic.twitter.com/8vvINycrdi

There are no such hard and fast edicts among clubs training in Arizona’s Cactus League. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Friday’s club briefing that it was suggested players handle their own pen when signing autographs.

“How do we handle it?” he asked. “I don’t know yet.”

The Angels discussed the pre-signed autograph option but otherwise aimed for common sense.

“We don’t want to get anybody ill, because we don’t want this place shut down for 14 days,” says manager Joe Maddon. “So, you gotta play by the rules.”

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