Burns: Covering the Braves in uncertain times

Braves outfielders Shane Robinson (from left), Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Rafael Ortega, and Trey Harris get is some work in the outfield during spring training Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves outfielders Shane Robinson (from left), Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Rafael Ortega, and Trey Harris get is some work in the outfield during spring training Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla.

Gabe Burns covers the Braves. He has covered the team since 2017 and as the lead beat writer since 2018.

We were wrapping up our coverage in Fort Myers, Fla., on March 11. It was a relatively busy day because the Braves were seeing Josh Donaldson for the first time since he departed for the Twins as a free agent. That gave us a little more relevant news than the typical spring training game.

I did not expect it to be the last sporting event I would watch for months. I did not expect it to be the last game I’d cover for months. Never could I have imagined writing this column.

The Braves won that suddenly memorable exhibition game 3-2. When we returned to the press box after interviewing manager Brian Snitker postgame, news broke that the NCAA was planning to host its basketball tournaments in empty venues because of the coronavirus outbreak.

My reaction was no different than yours. I was shocked at our new reality. An NCAA tournament without fans. It was inconceivable. Maybe the second-biggest event on the sports calendar wouldn’t feature the atmosphere that makes it so spectacular.

In the coming 24 hours, we – that is, those whose lives revolve around sports – would develop a deeper understanding of how serious this is.

Later that Wednesday evening, the NBA suspended its season after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, baseball – along with its fellow leagues – followed. Sports paused indefinitely.

Those of us covering Major League Baseball had a different experience from our other-sports colleagues. We were in Florida and Arizona as teams prepared to begin their seasons. This unpredictable sequence left us in limbo. I didn’t know if I’d be staying in Florida or heading back to Atlanta.

See, there’s a responsibility in this job to be where the team is. If the Braves were planning to stay in Florida – and if there would be media availability – then I’d continue residing in our temporary residence in Placida, Fla. If the team wasn’t having media availability, my presence wasn’t needed. I’d be heading home. Or if the team opted to leave North Port altogether, I’d do the same.

The initial plan was for the team to remain, though the Braves weren’t sure how they’d handle media availability. I planned to stay in Florida through the weekend, figuring things would be clearer Monday.

But Friday, after speaking with the MLBPA, MLB elected to give players a choice: Stay at the facilities, return to your home market or return to your offseason home. MLB suspended all spring training activities, effective that evening, and that was the nail in the coffin.

The next day, I switched my rental car drop-off to Atlanta. I drove to Valdosta, my hometown, to visit with family before heading back to Atlanta the next morning. I canceled my flights, including the team’s first road trip to Phoenix and San Diego, where real baseball was to begin yesterday.

It’s surreal to realize that I left Florida only 12 days ago, that only two weeks ago, live sports evaporated. There are many, many more serious concerns than sports right now, but it’s still left a void in our everyday lives.

Sports coverage is obviously in uncharted waters. National talk shows are playing the classics, such as LeBron vs. Kawhi, and the Cowboys’ endless dance with Dak Prescott negotiations. My beloved Bucs signed Tom Brady when the NFL’s free agency began, which provided a week’s worth of material for many.

Local go-to channels are showing replays, such as Fox Sports South – I happened to catch last season’s Rafael Ortega game-winning grand slam against the Dodgers the other night. Local print media? We’re making it work, trying to take this unanticipated time to bring you unique content.

But it’s not the same. Something we all considered immovable – live sports – has vanished.

I’m supposed to be in Phoenix today. Thursday was supposed to be a day we were all celebrating. It was supposed to be Mike Soroka versus Madison Bumgarner. Marcell Ozuna’s debut with the Braves and Starling Marte’s debut with the Diamondbacks.

It was supposed to be opening day – always one of my favorites on the calendar – launching a new season of trials, successes, laughs, tears, and, most important, memories that remain throughout our lifetimes and tales that extend beyond them.

Instead, sports are ultimately an afterthought as our country battles this pandemic that’s shifted the course of our lives. My thoughts are with all of you as we unite to outlast this horrible situation. And when we do, I look forward to our sports banter, conversations and debates. I especially look forward to being at the ballpark, delivering stories about your Braves.

For as much arguing as they engender, sports are often a great unifier. When this is all behind us, may it serve that purpose again for a recovering nation.