It has now been over two weeks since the NCAA canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 athletic season due to the public health threat of the novel coronavirus-caused, COVID-19 pandemic. Even though that amount of time has passed, there remain several questions about how college sports are going to continue operate going forward.
This is the third article in a continuing Pittsburgh Sports Now series on those questions and the difficult answers for them, as the world of college athletics moves through unprecedented territory during the ongoing pandemic.
On March 11, Pitt’s baseball team was 10-6 and preparing to host Virginia in its Atlantic Coast Conference season opener.
On March 12, the Panthers’ season was over.
That quickly, officials from first the ACC and then the greater NCAA decided that the coronavirus pandemic was serious enough to shut down the remainder of the 2019-20 athletics calendar.
For Pitt’s players and coaches, it ripped them out of their season just as it was getting started and plunged them into an interminable period of uncertainty.
The season, is over. That much is known. When baseball will return, and what it will look like when it does return, is very much unknown.
It’s a feeling that’s a bit familiar to Pitt head coach Mike Bell.
Bell’s collegiate career was never interrupted in the fashion that his players’ have been, but he experienced an abrupt pause twice in his professional career. In 1998, three years after being drafted by the Montreal Expos, Bell was was released while playing at the High-A level. He caught on quickly with the Baltimore Orioles, but as released again in 2000, his playing career over at the age of 27.
Bell eventually took up coaching two years later, starting at Brandon High School in the Tampa Bay area, and working his way through the ranks to become head coach at Pitt in 2019.
Those brief periods without baseball have been the exception, rather than the rule, in Bell’s life, but he’s trying to use what he learned in those periods of time when the game was taken away from him to guide his Panthers through this unprecedented time.
“I’ve always said the two toughest days in baseball for me were the two times I got released in pro ball,” Bell told Pittsburgh Sports Now in a telephone interview. “Not once, but twice. You’ve done something your whole life. You worked on it. It provided opportunity. It’s provided structure. And you don’t have it, and you also don’t know what is next.
“I think a lot of right now, not knowing what’s next is what weighs on a lot of people.”
For Pitt’s players, what might be next looks pretty different. The underclassmen were expecting to play summer ball and continue to work toward advancing their collegiate careers. The juniors were looking forward to June’s Major League Baseball draft and a hopeful pro career, while the seniors wanted one more run at the ACC before hoping to catch on in pro ball or moving on in their life away from the game.
Now, all of that is on hold. Summer leagues have not yet been canceled, but do no appear particularly hopeful to play. The MLB draft has been shortened to five or 10 rounds, likely excluding most of Pitt’s hopefuls. Those seniors may get their final year back, depending on how an NCAA committee votes on Monday, but there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to come back to a similar situation.
The first part of what Bell and his staff have done is to try to prepare their players to deal with those unknowns.
“The season is over. OK, what’s the next possible time [we can play?]” Bell posited. “We can try to get them ready for summer ball and boot their programs for that. If summer ball happens to get cancelled, we can re-boot and get them ready for fall. We wanted them to have a finish line or a goal in sight. So pitchers’ throwing programs and other developmental programs are going out on Monday.”
Of course, staying game-ready with players scattered across the country in vastly different scenarios is going to present its own set of challenges.
“We’re going to provide programs to provide structure through the online course and communicating, checking in with them bi-weekly, whether it’s FaceTime, Zoom chats, phone class or texts,” Bell said.
“But when we talk about time management, they’re going to have to use their time wisely. They’re going to have to create structure back home. Honestly, some of them probably will have to create different types of workouts without having access to gyms or high school weight rooms. Body weight-type things, mobility exercises, those types of things.”
That’s a big ask for young student athletes thrust into a difficult and new situation, but Bell’s message for his team was still a hopeful one.
“When we did our exit meetings, the one thing that I tried to stress is that as student athletes, they’re here [at Pitt] for a reason,” he said. “They already did things on their own to get to this spot. Now, we’re not just cutting them loose and telling them they’re on their own, but they’ve worked hard in the weight room. They’ve worked hard in the classroom. They’ve done the extra things on skillset to get to where they are.”
Bell is also looking at this time period as one of re-invention for his coaching staff, which will have to find new ways to connect with existing players and potential recruits without person-to-person interaction.
“It can allow you to learn some new things, some new techniques of how to relate and how to communicate and basically, connect with your players,” he said. “If staffs and programs are using it wisely, I think it’s going to open up some new avenues for player-coach relationships, teaching techniques, that kind of thing — recruiting as well. … It’s forcing guys to do some technological things, it really is.”
At the end of the day, the issues that are impacted college baseball are much like the impact the rest of the world is facing. Bell is focusing on the big picture.
“I think our leadership, from Chancellor [Patrick] Gallagher to [athletic director] Heather Lyke and on down, has gotten everything right,” he said. “We’ve been ahead of this. … The most important thing as a student-athlete is that they came [to college] to get their degree. A lot of these seniors will be already be finishing up their degrees this spring and that’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with that.”