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KC Cougars

Cougars: Ryan Grotjohn, other minor leaguers adjusting to a season on indefinite hold

Minor League Baseball announced cancelled spring training, delay to season March 12

Ryan Grotjohn is arguably one of the lucky ones.

Grotjohn, a Kane County Cougars outfielder in 2018 who split time last season between Class A-Advanced and Double-A in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, lives about 10 minutes away from the team's spring training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He had already been going there for offseason work since January, putting on another 20 pounds of muscle in the process.

On March 12, Major League Baseball suspended Spring Training, cancelled all further spring training games and pushed back the start of the major league season by "at least two weeks" in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Minor League Baseball followed suit the same day.

On March 16, MLB announced that it would follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations restricting events of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. On Thursday MLB and its players reportedly agreed that the season would not start until there are no bans on mass gatherings that limit the ability to play in front of fans, there are no travel restrictions and medical experts determine games will not pose a risk to the health of teams and plans.

Optimistic estimates for a possible start-up to the season point to perhaps mid-June or July.

What was supposed to be the start of another season in the careers of ball players across the country was put on an indefinite hold before some even arrived at their complexes.

"We had early camp [going on], and that Friday [March 13] was supposed to be the first day of official minor league camp," Grotjohn said. "People came in that Thursday [March 12]. We found out on Thursday that baseball is cancelled, and they sent everyone home the next day."

"You had guys – when we finished up practice – coming in to do their physicals – that just got in town," Grotjohn continued. "Maybe they drove, maybe they flew and then they're leaving the next day."

Zack Shannon, who appeared in 94 games for the Cougars last season and led the team with 60 runs batted in, made the 21-hour, 1,500-mile drive drive from Jackson, Miss. to Scottsdale, arriving that Wednesday night, March 11.

Shannon got his physical completed Thursday afternoon and unpacked his truck. Hours later, the news broke on the season's delay.

"It was pretty heartbreaking," Shannon said. "It kind of knocked the wind out of me. I think the wind is still knocked out of me right now [while] all this is going on and we can't be out on the field right now."

"It's what we do, man," Shannon continued. "It's what we love."

On the way back home, Shannon got stuck behind a massive car wreck outside of Tuscon.

"Some trooper drove down the highway and was telling people in their cars that we'd be stuck there until the morning," Shannon said. "So, I turned off the road in my truck, drove down a dirt road and did about a 200-mile detour to to go six miles up the highway. It took me a good, long three days to get back."

Shortly following the suspension of spring training, Grotjohn said the Diamondbacks sent an email to their minor league players detailing they'd receive a direct-deposit stipend.

"Which was nice," said Grotjohn, who declined to disclose the amount he received. "I don't know [what] other teams did, but for us, [the amount] was huge, especially for me. I don't know for other guys that may not have a job. Or, some guys have families and kids and stuff...every little bit helps."

Shannon said he received a $1,000 stipend three days after the initial email from the Diamondbacks.

"It was awesome," Shannon said. "$1,000 isn't any kind of life-changing money by any means, but it paid my bills for this month...It was awesome."

"I wasn't sure," Shannon continued. "Because some of us were kind of talking about it and making speculations, trying to figure stuff out. None of us were totally sure about what was going to go on and [if] we were going to get paid or not, and we did."

Grotjohn doesn't know if another stipend is coming. However, he was able to recently return to his offseason job of being an assistant within the human resources deptartment for an embroidery company.

With the Diamondbacks' facilities closed, Grotjohn's options for a weight lifting session are increasingly becoming more challenging to find. His apartment complex's gym is locked with a chain around the door. Several, if not all, of the public gyms are also closed in the area.

Instead, he utilizes a neighboring park for running, push-ups and other cardio-related activity. Grotjohn also will go to an indoor hitting facility approximately four times a week for 90-minute hitting sessions.

Grotjohn says players within the Diamondbacks system, and others from the Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations are getting sessions in.

Last season, Grotjohn played 78 games for Double-A Jackson, hitting .229 with three home runs and 19 RBIs.

"I want to keep getting work in, but I don't want to go too crazy," Grotjohn said. "Especially [when] who knows when this is going to start?'[It's] just something to stay light, stay in shape. You can only do so much in a cage."

Shannon will go for a morning workout on the beach, but he's usually done by 8 or 9 a.m. On the bright side, he gets to go fishing alongside working some handyman jobs he picks up.

In the last three days, Shannon has been fixing up a boat. He now expects some grass cutting, deck construction and wood working projects to do within the week.

"Shoot, I like fishing," Shannon said. "Baseball – and fishing is a dang close second – are things that I love to do. It's weird...March 27, and I'm not playing baseball? It's freaky. It's 85 degrees outside and I'm not playing baseball."

Amid all the uncertainty, what the rosters for each level of the minor league teams will look like is still somewhat of a mystery.

"If we were to be in spring training right now, we'd be a week from breaking camp and then two weeks from the season," Cougars second-year manager Vince Harrison said. "Usually, that last week or so is huge as far as kind of making those roster decisions. A lot of it is based on trickle-down from the big leagues."

"Without having that, which affects Triple-A, Double-A and then us – we're kind of like the last one when it comes to [roster] trickle-down," Harrison continued. "Sometimes, it's that borderline Jackson [Double-A] or Visalia [High-A] guy that ends up kind of being the one that moves one way or the other. For us, it's kind of tough."

Assuming the season will start, managers, players and other personnel will have their own set of unique challenges.

For position players, it could be getting their timing re-adjusted to live pitching at the plate. For pitchers, making sure their arms are healthy enough for the workloads that could be coming, whether there be double-headers or shortened inning games.

"It's just going to be knowing that your time is limited," Shannon said. "A lot of people, including myself, are slow starters...I'm a slow starter. I don't usually catch my hot streak until a little bit in, and I got to re-adjust that. I got to learn how to catch my hot streak early. I got to learn how to get into the groove quicker; that's going to be an adjustment for me."

As a manager, chief among Harrison's challenges is to keep his players mentally sharp for the grind to come.

"I think that the energy will be there," Harrison said. "I think that the country [is just] throbbing for some games right now. I know our players are itching for it too. I think the challenge for me is going to be able to help guys kind of still see the bigger picture – where it's not like we've got to make up for all those lost [at-bats]."

"I know one of my biggest goals as a manager is to remind the players that my title says 'player development', and all the decisions I make, it's about developing the player and preparing them for major league levels."

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