PITTSBURGH — The Cleveland Indians took three separate buses to PNC Park before Saturday's exhibition against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a move designed to maintain proper social distancing while also trying to pull off a Major League Baseball season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The club, however, broke with the protocol for a few brief moments during the national anthem. While a prerecorded version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared over the speakers at the spectator-free ballpark, the Indians stood side-by-side, their right hand over their heart, their left hand on their teammate's right shoulder.
It was intentional. It was peaceful. And most importantly, star shortstop Francisco Lindor stressed, it was respectful of all sides as the team figures out a way to show support for social justice following the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police in May.
“I think as a team we stand by the change but we also respect the flag and the national anthem as a team,” Lindor said after hitting a go-ahead double in the eighth inning of a 5-3 victory. “We understand that it is time for a change and change is due.”
The club held a lengthy meeting on Friday that manager Terry Francona said focused on “life issues.” The result provided a vivid visual. No kneeling, but rather a very intimate, very personal sign of unity. Lindor believes it's the start of something, not the end.
“We need to continue to have more conversations,” Lindor said. “This is not a one-time thing. people have been fighting for black lives and people of colour for the longest time ... we’re going to continue to talk.”
Even if they'll be forced to do it during the most unusual season in baseball history. What ended up as a show of togetherness actually began as a scramble.
Because there were no fans inside the park, the normal pregame pattern felt disjointed. There was no message over the public address system asking people to rise for the anthem. Instead, it just started.
Several Pirates warming up just stopped what they were doing and turned toward the flag beyond the wall in left- centre field while the Indians — some of whom were informally playing catch down the right-field line — raced into position.
Once the anthem ended, things returned to normal, sort of.
Pittsburgh starter Joe Musgrove tossed three scoreless innings in his final tune-up before getting the ball on opening day in St. Louis next Friday. Musgrove struck out five against one hit and one walk in his final tune-up before things start to count.
The 27-year-old Musgrove tried to block out the weirdness of it all and just go about his business. Pearl Jam's “Evenflow” blared over the speakers during his warmup before the top of the first and after that, the artificial crowd noise and the seas of empty seats faded away.
“It felt like a game,” Musgrove said. “For me, as a pitcher you only see, everyone talks about how intense the crowd might be ... but you’ve got tunnel vision, you see the hitter, the catcher and the umpire ... that visual for me was pretty much the same.”
The Pirates lost backup catcher Luke Maile for the season following surgery on Friday to repair a fractured right index finger. The injury, which occurred on Thursday, will keep Maile out of action for at least 10 to 12 weeks. Normally that would be around half a season. In 2020 that means Maile's year is done.
John Ryan Murphy figures to be the primary backup behind Jacob Stallings when the season begins next week.
HERE AND THERE
Christian Arroyo hit a two-run double in the eighth to spark Cleveland's rally from a 3-0 deficit. ... Zach Plesac allowed two runs on six hits with no walks and six strikeouts in five innings for the Indians. ... Guillermo Heredia, who will start in right field for the Pirates while starter Gregory Polanco recovers from the novel coronavirus, drove in two runs for Pittsburgh.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press