What it's like switching spots on the Cubs beat during coronavirus pandemic


The day the offer was accepted in February, the head of the Wuchang hospital in Wuhan, China, died from the COVID-19 virus, and a cruise ship full of infected passengers remained under quarantine conditions in a port south of Tokyo.

The day the contract was signed a few weeks later, the U.S. announced a travel ban on European flights into the country, and known cases worldwide reached 118,000 — including more than 1,200 in the U.S.

The next day Major League Baseball joined the NHL and NBA in shutting down.

And this week as the coronavirus pandemic pushes health-care resources toward tipping points in Atlanta, New York and Washington, I finally, awkwardly started — from home — a new job as Cubs Insider for NBC Sports Chicago.

Dazed and bemused doesn’t begin to describe changing jobs during a pandemic — much less to cover a team that has no idea when it will play a game this year. Or if it will.

But the bigger emotions involve smallness within this moment and deep appreciation.

What will I cover? What will I write?

What will any of it matter in a few months? Tomorrow?

All I know is I’m changing jobs during a pandemic.

Others are losing jobs. And worse.

And none of us knows what’s coming next, how long it will last, how much worse it will get before it gets better, or even if baseball will be around this summer to help ease a nation’s pain, and distract from its hardships.

In my final week covering the Cubs for the Sun-Times last week, I was the last beat writer in Arizona, talking to players and staff through a locked fence, one at a time, as the few who stayed behind during the shutdown arrived each morning for informal, unscheduled workouts.

They were as confused as anyone, trying to stay in shape, stay informed and stay safe.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor, talked about being professional, keeping himself ready to do his job whenever baseball might start again.

But his mind was on his parents, wife, other family and friends, he said, as he considered the scope of the global threat that is growing especially fast in the U.S.

“It’s about being healthy,” he said. “I don’t really care about baseball right now. Do I want to be playing? Yes. Absolutely. But the health of you, the health of everyone is more important than baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer — everything.

“You see it: Everything’s shut down,” Rizzo said. “These aren’t normal times. You’re standing behind a fence right now because this is how abnormal it is.”

Normal times?

I’m still on the other side of the fence, even when it comes to the process of the job change.

NBC and the Sun-Times have done the right thing and sent staff home to work remotely, leaving empty offices.

No stopping by HR on the first day in the office to fill out paperwork or pick up a new computer, meet new co-workers, learn the new system.

Never mind stopping by the old office to turn in equipment, tie up loose ends, say a few goodbyes.

We’ve all seen the pictures of Times Square, the Las Vegas Strip and downtown Chicago in recent days.

Ghost towns.

Weird. Strange. Eerie. The usual words aren’t enough.

Because we know what’s causing it. Yet we can’t see it. And really have no idea. Not yet. Only that it’s very big, only that we are in the midst of something historically, globally significant.

And that only leaves us to hope and pray that it might be less big than we imagine.

“This isn’t about me. This is about us,” Cubs infielder David Bote said last week when asked to talk about how he’s coping.

That’s what keeps coming to mind whenever it gets tempting to complain about uncertainty involving those of us who make our livings around the sports industry, or about changing jobs during a pandemic.

I thought it would be hard leaving newspapers when it came time to make this job decision. I was a paperboy, a high school sports editor, a copy boy in Seattle, a preps writer in Fort Lauderdale and for the last 13 seasons the Cubs beat writer for one of the last two papers standing in Chicago — without question the better of the two when it comes to covering sports.

But more than anything I was one of the lucky ones. Newspapers never left me, in more than 30 years on the job. They left many of my friends and colleagues. Some of my old papers are out of business or no longer have anything to do with actual paper (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer remains a faint echo of its former self in digital-only form).

And even beyond this new opportunity with a great company, I’m still one of the lucky ones. My family and close friends are safe and well at home, so far, including my parents, brothers, nieces, in-laws and several friends who are as close as family in hard-hit Washington State.

This certainly is about all of us. It’s about staying together even as we keep our distance. It’s about patience in close quarters, respecting risks, sharing resources, staying safe, and for many of us maybe even just a little bit about keeping a mind’s eye on a warm summer afternoon at the ballpark while we work and wait for the chance to return to whatever normal looks like then.

We can’t know when they’ll open the gate and let us on the other side of the fence again. But all of us can try to be ready for that day, to stay smart and healthy, to be lucky enough to sit elbow-to-elbow again in the bleachers for a game, or the bar across the street.

I’ve got first round.

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