If fans had any doubts about the transcendent impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the cancellation of the NCAA championships on March 12, 2020 at the expense of nearly $1 billion in revenue certainly erased them. The annual events everyone took for granted, particularly March Madness and the College World Series, vanished.
On the exact same date, Major League Baseball closed spring training facilities and officially postponed the start of its regular season. Fans were left wondering when baseball and other sports would safely return, but players throughout the professional and amateur ranks had questions about the long-term implications of the shutdown. Though MLB began hosting games on July 23, the game of baseball didn’t return everywhere.
For some, especially those on the amateur side, their teams never retook the field. Even for many of those who were able to resume, the pandemic changed their baseball careers forever.
Matt Mervis, 1B, Chicago Cubs organization
There is nothing quite like the intensity and mystique of a rivalry game for a college senior at a prestigious program. Now a Chicago Cubs prospect, former Blue Devil star Matt Mervis will never forget the day his college career ended unceremoniously.
“The day that we got pulled off the field, my senior year at Duke,” Mervis recalled. “It was the Thursday before our weekend series against North Carolina, our rivals. So you go from the high of emotions and getting ready to play your rival [in] the Series of the Week — I believe — on the ACC network, so we’re going to be playing in front of a big audience. I know a bunch of families were coming down.”
“Then in the middle of batting practice, we just got called off the field and were told to go in the locker room. From there, it was about a three-day decline from ‘We’re hopeful that we can play this weekend’ into ‘Okay, pack your stuff and go home’ to ‘Clear out of campus.’ Obviously, things escalated really quickly.”
“Things escalated really quickly”
With the college season canceled, Mervis became one of the many draft-eligible players wondering what lay ahead for him in the sport. A player of his stature would be a natural option for teams in the 7-10 round range of an MLB draft in a typical year. However, 2020 was far from a typical year and the draft itself was far from a certainty. Slashed to just five rounds, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure for teams claiming massive losses due to a season that was still in question, the amateur draft was going to leave hundreds of players unpicked.
The concept that multibillion-dollar corporations would be unable to pay employees in a system that already artificially reduces pay should merit skepticism, but that’s a topic for another conversation.
Mervis had tried to position himself as a slot bonus-saving selection for teams working with a limited bonus pool and he’d had communication with some organizations. But when the draft arrived that July and he didn’t hear his name called, he had to answer a question raised by The Clash: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
He could remain at Duke because the NCAA had granted an extra year of eligibility to players in winter and spring sports. On the other hand, his dream was to play professional baseball and he didn’t want to delay that longer than necessary. Though signing bonuses during this period would be capped at $20,000, there were inherent benefits provided by being a free agent and he found a benefit in choosing the best team to aid in his development.
“Having the option to weigh my options and think about the different teams and organizations and development [plans] that I would be able to go through while having those laid out in front of me was pretty unique,” Mervis said. “[The process] is something that I’m pretty thankful for because it really helped me, my family, and my agent decide where we thought the best place for me was, and that’s with the Cubs organization.”
Mervis feels he’s found the best place for his development even though the path was dramatically different than the one he envisioned.
Harison Rossi, OF, Murray State College
Harrison Rossi crossed thousands of miles to enroll at Chicago State University with dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. The 6-foot-2 outfielder from Florida was in his freshman season when the pandemic struck and, like so many throughout the sport, he spent months waiting for the next chance to get back on the field.
He was looking forward to finally playing with his college teammates when games resumed until one fateful day in May. Rossi scrolled through Twitter to see the news that stopped him in his tracks.
“I saw a reporter tweet that the [Chicago State baseball] program was being shut down [permanently],” Rossi said. “My initial reaction was to reach out to our coaches. I sent them each a screenshot of the tweet, and they were just as surprised as I was. I was devastated.”
“I saw a reporter tweet that the program was being shut down [permanently].”
Chicago State’s administration was not in a position to confirm the decision to eliminate the baseball program, which put the entire team in a precarious position. If players wanted to find another program willing to accept them, they had to act fast. Rossi faced the decision of leaving his teammates and future at Chicago State or staying to find his baseball opportunities vanish.
“I decided I was going to transfer as soon as I found out they were possibly cutting the program,” he explained. “The board at Chicago State didn’t give us a solidified answer on whether or not the program was shutting down and told us they were going to let us know in a month.
“Realistically, we didn’t have a month to wait because that month was valuable for getting us to another school. Any hesitation put us in jeopardy of losing a scholarship somewhere else.”
Despite all the negatives, the announcement that COVID-19 had ended his freshman season did have some positive effects
“My favorite [memory] was a bittersweet one,” Rossi recalled. “After playing Louisville, we trekked to Hawaii to play the University of Hawaii and were told our season was done because of COVID when we got there. We ended up staying in Hawaii for a few days, and I made some of the best memories of my life, exploring and enjoying the island with my teammates.
“At the time, I didn’t realize how valuable those times were, but as I look back now, I see it as one of the most remarkable times of my life.”
Rossi’s dreams of a baseball career eventually took him to Murray State, which he describes as “a one of a kind experience.” Though not a Division I school like Chicago State, the Racers play a competitive schedule and will give Rossi and others a chance to make up for lost time.
Jack Clemente, RHP, La Salle University
Along with Chicago State, Furman and Boise State also ended their D1 baseball programs during the summer of 2020. La Salle University experienced its share of economic difficulties as well, but play was expected to continue just as it had since 1947. Those plans changed when, along with six other sports, the baseball team received word last September that the 2021 season would be the last for the program.
Jack Clemente had already lost his senior high school season due to the shutdown, but he began his first year at La Salle excited for NCAA baseball. He has dreams of playing in the majors, so his time at La Salle was supposed to have been the next step to prepare him for professional ball until he was forced to take a hard left detour.
“The day we found out was a shock to us all,” Clemente said. “We all were excited for one of La Salle’s greatest teams yet, and out of nowhere, we are shut down. I think COVID was the last thing to have the school do what they did finally [in canceling the program]. La Salle has been in a money drought for many years now, and this (in their minds) was going to help.”
“Winning the A-10 [Conference] and making the playoffs would be our only acceptable outcome for the year”
Clemente and his teammates haven’t given up hope, however. Bowling Green University announced they were canceling their baseball program due to the pandemic, only for it to be brought back after an enormous outcry of support and donations. Those same efforts are taking place in Philadelphia as well, but the players plan to focus on what they can control on the field.
“The attempts to save the program are still being made, but we’re all focused on winning out this season,” Clemente said. “Playing for a team that has no permanent future is something special. We have nothing to lose, and we’re all playing with some fire under our skin.
“Winning the A10s and making the playoffs would be our only acceptable outcome for the year.”
Ethan Hear, IF/OF, Minnesota Post Grad
Reflecting on the enormous impact the pandemic had on collegiate teams, it’s critical to remember the nearly 500,000 high school players across the country. The nationwide shutdown of sports at all levels led to many high school seniors losing both the remainder of their prep careers and their initial college commitments. That was the case for Ethan Hear, a versatile infielder/outfielder from of West Chester, OH.
Even after battling for for several years at Archbishop Moeller High School — home of MLB Hall Of Famers Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. — to improve himself and continue to play baseball at the next level, Hear’s journey was far from over. Despite not making the varsity squad his junior and senior year, he dedicated himself to weight training and showed enough to earn a scholarship opportunity at Urbana University.
The high of earning his spot on a college team were short-lived when he received word that Urbana University would be disbanding its baseball program.
“If I thought that not making my high school team was the low point at that time, I didn’t know what to expect when Urbana closed down.” Hear commented, “Knowing I had a future in college and having that ripped out from underneath you so unexpectedly; it was heart-breaking.”
With no other college options available, Hear enrolled in Minnesota Post Grad, a state-of-the-art program that does not jeopardize college eligibility. The St. Paul-based organization is designed to “assist players on their next baseball venture, whether it is professional or college athletics.”
“Knowing I had a future in college and having that ripped out from underneath you so unexpectedly, it was heart-breaking”
“My plan for baseball is to ride it out as far as I can and give myself the best shot I can in order to make it,” Hear said. “I understand that being the next Mike Trout is so far of a stretch, but why [should I] give up on that dream I had as a little boy? I have to take it one step at a time, starting with getting into a college where I will be able to show off my skills and perform at the highest level I can to possibly one day get drafted.
“If I don’t get drafted, at least I will be able to live with myself knowing I gave it the best shot I could to make my dreams come true.”
A future path in baseball
The stories of Mervis, Rossi, Clemente, and Hear represent just a tiny fraction of those athletes who had to face the question of whether or not baseball would ever come back. Or, more personally, whether they would have a place in the game once it did return.
Thousands had their careers or educational opportunities put on hold for months, but now many of them are finding new ways to pursue their dreams of playing a sport they love.