Ty Tice and Hunter Wood may have been robbed of opportunities in Major League Baseball by the pandemic like many others in all walks of life this year, but Vance Wilson came away from the 2020 season with a positive spin.
Wilson completed his first season as the third-base coach of the Kansas City Royals and is anxious for more.
"I was sad it was over really," said Wilson, a veteran of eight seasons as a Major League player and three now on a big league coaching staff.
An interesting take from a guy who was forced to take a covid-19 test at least every other day and sometimes more for almost three months straight, not to mention jump through a variety of pandemic-related other hoops.
Wilson managed the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Royals' Double-A affiliate, for four seasons and still makes his home in Springdale in the offseason.
He was amazed at how everyone, particularly players, adapted to all the changes stemming from the pandemic to complete a season such as it was. The Royals had only a couple of covid-related issues and they came in the first couple of weeks of spring training, Wilson said.
"Really I was blown away by the adaptability of the players and especially our organization," Wilson said. "There were two things really that stuck out to me. Number one, the fact that the routine changed more than anything you can imagine.
"What our players, staff, what everybody had to go through to play a major league game is nothing short of a miracle. Our guys, I'm speaking of the Kansas City Royals, handled it with incredible patience and incredible appreciation."
Players and staff had a phone app, which had them answer covid-related questions daily. They had to answer the questions and take their temperature twice before they could even enter the stadium, Wilson said.
They had to check in again at the stadium where they answered more questions and had their temperature taken twice more. There were also more strict guidelines about how early players could arrive at the stadium, another big change to the routine.
"Players could arrive around five to six hours before the game, depending on the city," Wilson said.
Despite all that, Wilson said games still had the same intensity and that's a credit to the players.
"The energy level was up, guys were trying to win," Wilson said. "The thing I thought maybe wasn't going to happen. In the end, the true essence of what the game is still happened and I enjoyed it."
The 47-year-old former catcher had to do some changing of his own this season that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
Wilson coached third base throughout his years as a minor league manager, but it was different on the big league level, he said.
Ultimately, he was taking direction from the manager, in this case Royals' manager Mike Matheny.
"Even though you're making the same decisions, your body movements are the same, you're not making the calls pre-pitch," said Wilson, who served as the Royals bullpen coach the past two seasons. "I hate to say it, but my hardest part in spring training was remembering to look at Mike in the dugout.
"Even though I did it in the minor leagues, I was in the pitching department for two years. Man, I was really out of place for about the first week of spring training."
Wilson was also more on edge at times in the third-base box with no fans in the stands and therefore not as much noise in the stadiums. But even that varied as some stadiums had more "canned" noise piped in than others, he said.
"The stadiums that had the good noise coming in and would play it loud it wasn't a factor, but somewhere like Wrigley, you could hear everything," Wilson said. "It puts you a little more on alert. You're literally seven feet from their coaches."
Different Point of View
Tice and Wood have some things in common. Both are hard-throwing right-handed pitchers. Both spent the unusual 60-game season at the alternate training sites for the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians, respectively.
But they also have different perspectives.
Wood, a former standout at Rogers Heritage who also now lives in Springdale in the offseason, spent parts of the last three seasons in the Major Leagues.
Tice, a former multi-sport standout at Prairie Grove, was climbing the ladder in the minors -- making it to Triple-A in the latter part of the 2019 season after being drafted in 2017.
But last year's minor league baseball season was canceled, leaving only small groups of players from each of the 30 Major League teams basically practicing every day instead of playing games.
Part of the group was there as sort of an insurance policy in case players from the Major League club got hurt or were affected in other ways. Younger players were at the alternate sites so the parent club could more closely monitor their development.
"It was definitely weird," Tice said. "But it's about like everything else during this time with coronavirus. But ultimately it was just another opportunity to play baseball, so I was happy to be there.
"It was an adjustment for all of us. For me, it was just about getting better and making sure I was ready if I did get the call."
That call never came for either player.
Tice spent his three months in Rochester, N.Y., and Wood was in Eastlake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb and home to the Indians' High-A affiliate.
Neither could say much about either town because all they really saw was the baseball park despite being there for nearly three months. Players were restricted to the hotel where they lived when not participating in baseball activities and were tested every other day for covid-19.
"Was it depressing? Very depressing," Wood said. "When you go to the field two or three hours a day and then you have to go to the hotel for the rest of the time ... we scrimmaged each other every day. I threw one or two innings every other day. Nobody in the stands, throwing against the same guys. It was hard to get motivated to even go out there some days. It was just hard."
Tice agreed that it was difficult at times, but in the end, he said it was just another lesson learned.
"It's disappointing when you're not where you want to be," Tice said. "At the same time, I think I learned a lot about how to control what I can control. And I think I got better on that side of the game."
The 27-year-old Wood, who is currently a free agent, was clear about what kept him focused though.
"My wife and three little ones back home kept me motivated," Wood said.
Wood's 2020 season got off on the wrong foot when he became ill prior to the beginning of spring training. He believes it might have even been covid-19, but no one was talking about it then.
"I went to (Cleveland's) Fan Fest in January and I came home and I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks," Wood said.
He had little energy to throw or work out and lost around 15 pounds, not to mention a few miles per hour on his fastball by the time he got to spring training, he said.
Wood never found his groove and was ultimately designated for a minor league assignment and taken off the Indians' 40-man roster.
"I was playing catch-up all of spring training," Wood said. "Even when I got back home, I didn't think the season was gonna happen. I still threw, but had to ramp up when I got the call.
"I think I was behind the eight-ball from the beginning when I showed up 15 pounds lighter."
But his velocity returned later and Wood is talking with multiple teams about a contract for the upcoming season and remains optimistic.
"I'm not super worried, but I'm ready to know where I'm playing so I can prepare myself, " Wood said.
Waiting on The Call
Similar to Wilson, Tice can't wait for spring to get here. The 24-year-old is hoping to get the chance to pitch at the Major League level like his former Prairie Grove teammate Jalen Beeks.
Tice, who only played the outfield his freshman year at the University of Central Arkansas, appears close after being added to the Blue Jays' 40-man roster in late November.
Tice is hopeful of competing for a spot in Toronto's bullpen as he heads into his second Major League spring training camp.
Gil Kim, the Blue Jays' director of player personnel, said Tice's athleticism at only 5-foot-9 got the organization's attention early on, but other factors have made him a rising star.
"I can remember talking about the fact that he can dunk a basketball," Kim said. "The second he entered the organization, that was something that accompanied his scouting report actually."
Tice's competitive spirit, character and maturity are attributes that have helped him advance through the organization, Kim said.
"With Ty, there's not one glaring deficiency that presents itself as an obstacle," Kim said. "It's just fine-tuning and tweaking at this point. He's made great strides at every level.
"Going forward it's harnessing his arsenal with some improvements in location and command which is something all pitchers work on. We have a ton of confidence in the work ethic and the athleticism and the person to make those necessary adjustments."
Paul Boyd can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAPaulb.