When Covid-19 derailed the MLB season midway through Spring training, players were left with no place to practice their craft. Eric Cressey, owner of Cressey Sports Performance gyms, gave some of the biggest stars in the game a place to play.
A group that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton and more than 30 other big leaguers had quietly been working together at the Palm Beach Gardens High School field.
The group started organically. With the abrupt end to spring training and uncertainty about a possible restart, a lot of players already in the Palm Beach area stuck around.
Cressey, the organizer of the group and facility, made sure the health and safety of the players was the top priority.
“The health and safety part was hard. We had to have really small groups, use all 10,000 square feet of the facility,” Cressey said. “But the security aspect of it was probably even more challenging, to be discreet and give these guys an element of privacy. Guys were saying it was like ‘Fight Club’ or Prohibition baseball.”
The group got closer and closer as the weeks went by, not only training together, but helping each other out. Logan Morrison, who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers this winter, hadn’t seen live pitching for six weeks before arriving at Cressey’s. He was placed right into the fire, facing Scherzer and Kluber on back to back days. Verlander then grabbed Morrison, asking him to take some swings while he worked on his slider.
Morrison explained where the helping each other out came from, and what it means.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to beat everybody, but they want to beat you at your best. So guys were helping each other out.”
That isn’t something opposing players would normally share, but under the circumstances it is vital. Pitching coaches, hitting coaches, teammates were not readily available while playing and training in secret.
The entire set up is unique. It was the best of both worlds: a talented group of big leaguers in a setting where the outcome didn’t matter. Just baseball and kicking it with the guys. Almost brings you back to the youth days of just playing a kids game.
“How often do you get competitive at-bats with feedback?” Orioles reliever Richard Bleier said. “Goldy told me stuff I never thought of before, and I’ve been pitching for 13 years. That’s stuff you can’t get throwing bullpens.”
Naturally the players wanted to play actual games, and they got their wish. They played two games in the final week of June, the first being played at Palm Beach Gardens High School. There were rules for safety, including no sliding and distancing as much as possible, but it was still very much a baseball game. There were pitching battles, several home runs and plenty of good-natured trash talking.
Cressey organized the pitching by service time. So the veteran arms got out there in the early innings, with the minor league guys and rising stars closing the game out.
“We had a real roster that could beat other pro teams.”
The roster was headlined by Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Jackson, Logan Morrison, Paul Goldschmidt, Robert Gsellman, Michael Wacha, and Noah Syndergaard.
A game being played with this many star players would normally attract thousands of fans, yet the entire operation went unseen. Cressey said there was no mastermind to keep the whole thing under wraps and in the dark. Rather it was just understood that this couldn’t catch national attention.
There was some push back by players who wanted to post it to their social media pages. Luke Jackson, the Braves pitcher, was most vocal about it, saying the fans would love to see what he was able to see.
“You want to see Scherzer and Goldschmidt or Stanton go head-to-head?” Jackson said. “And hear them go back and forth? People are going to pay to go to a high school field for that.”
Cressey and company were able to talk him off that idea, but Cressey does have some footage from the games and batting practice. He might release it in the future, but for the operation to work, they had to keep this in the dark.
If fans got a hold of this, they would be crowding around the field, which is bad for social distancing. Teams would likely shut the whole thing down, in no way would teams give the okay to play meaningless games.
Imagine Giancarlo Stanton pulled a calf muscle, or Scherzer and Verlander blew out their shoulder on a high school field. That would be bounds for terminating their $200 million contracts. It was a fine line of staying in shape and doing too much without team supervision.
Luckily all players got through the secret training and games healthy, and seem ready to ramp things up as the regular season begins in 3 weeks. Lets hope we get to see the footage of the prohibited all star game.