Allen Lawrence noticed the masks.
It was the last week of February, and the Salem Red Sox general manager was making his annual trip to spring training in Fort Myers, Florida. For Lawrence, this is one of the great perks of his job — four days of sunshine and baseball with a new minor league season just weeks away, a chance to get an early look at players bound for the Roanoke Valley.
The trip was perfectly enjoyable and normal. Except for one aspect of it.
“In the airports flying down, I had never seen so many people wearing a mask,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “But that was the only thing. The coronavirus was a thing then, and people were aware of it, but not like this by any means.
“Baseball was still a go at that point. Nobody even thought that there could be a delay.”
We’re all aware of how that’s changed. Thursday was supposed to be Opening Day across the major leagues. In response to the pandemic, MLB has pushed back the start of its season to at least mid-May, which looks more ambitious by the day. The minors won’t start until the majors do.
So the Salem Red Sox, like the rest of us, wait.
“Everything now is kind of speculation and a guessing game,” said Lawrence, whose Sox had been scheduled to open at home against Lynchburg on April 9. “I’m hopeful that we’ll start sometime in June. I don’t know. They’re saying now that July could be more realistic.
“I would think if we started getting into August they would have to say, OK, what’s the point? But they have talked about extending the Major League Baseball season and also the minor league season a little bit, too. We’ll see what happens. I wish I knew the answer.”
This typically would be one of busiest weeks of the year for Lawrence and his staff, who view the annual Sox Fest as their opening event in terms of having the ballpark ready. That fan-friendly gathering was slated for this coming Saturday; it was canceled March 16.
The Sox closed their offices to outside visitors last week. On Monday, the team’s employees began working from home.
“We’re not allowing any more than two people into the office at any one time,” Lawrence said. “We’re not even keeping consistent hours. I just ran in for about 30 minutes just now, just because I had to grab something. Aside from people running in there and grabbing something off their computer, that’s pretty much all we’re limited to now.”
Still, the Sox are doing their best to stay connected with fans through online means. They’ve created a reading program for kids, who no longer have school. They’re tweeting video messages from front office employees to help fans get to know the staff.
The Sox are trying to keep their sense of humor, too. They’ve temporarily changed their Twitter avatar to the “social distancing” logo introduced by their parent club — a pair of red socks no longer interlocked.
“It’s hard to sell anything right now, so we’re just trying to have some sort of a presence on social media,” Lawrence said. “We crammed a whole lot of things into a short period of time on Friday when we realized that was going to be our last day in the office.”
Through April 2, the Sox are selling logoed “I miss baseball” T-shirts, with all of the proceeds going to a charity of the buyer’s choice. Outfielder Tyler Esplin, who played for Salem and low-A Greenville last year, bought 30 of them.
The $25 price also includes two tickets for the 2020 season. Additionally, for every T-shirt purchased, the club will donate tickets to local health care workers.
Those tickets, of course, are undated.