While much has changed in our understanding of COVID-19 and how the virus operates from the early days of March, one thing has remained consistent: those individuals in certain “high-risk” categories, such as those over 65 or with pre-existing health conditions, have always been, and continue to be, at greater risk of contracting coronavirus and becoming severely ill and/or passing away due to complications of the virus. As baseball looks to tentatively re-open, one panacea that has been freely passed around is the notion that most players, the majority of whom are in their twenties or early thirties and in prime physical condition, are generally about as low-risk as populations come, with a few exceptions, such as the Rangers’ Jake Diekman, who has ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that can flare up painfully with no warning. However, even skimming over the entirely false assumption that those in this age group are somehow immune from the deadly effects of the virus, there remains the issue of coaches and managers. For context, the average age of a manager lands somewhere in the early 50s; Joe Maddon will celebrate his 66th birthday this September, while Dusty Baker just turned 71. 68-year-old Ron Washington has said he will wear a mask at all times while coaching third base for the Braves this season. To attempt to protect these populations who are more vulnerable to the deadly outcomes of the virus, some clubs, like the Twins, are sidelining personnel who fall into the high-risk category.
Although the Mariners generally skew younger as a coaching staff—even as Scott Servais falls right in that median for manager age at 53—there are still some coaches who fall into the high-risk demographic. Legendary infield coach Perry Hill is the very picture of spry, but celebrated his 68th birthday this past month. Like Diekman, hitting coach Tim Laker also has colitis, a disease he was first diagnosed with back in 1992. And pitching coordinator Brian DeLunas has been on the transplant list awaiting a new kidney for over a year (for information on how you can help, click here).
In order to protect the health and safety of these members of the organization, the Mariners front office came to the difficult decision that the three high-risk coaches would work remotely for the 2020 season; no in-person coaching sessions will be allowed. Hill, Laker, and DeLunas will not be permitted at the stadium this season, nor will they be allowed at the alternate training site Cheney Stadium. They are still employed by the team, and will be coaching players over the phone and via video conference. But in terms of hands-on tutoring, that’ll have to wait until 2021, or at least until circumstances surrounding the virus allow a safer approach to teaching.
Beyond the frustration this must present to each of the coaches impacted, it’s also a significant loss for the organization, as each has contributed to the team, specifically to younger players, in significant ways. Tim Laker worked extensively with Mitch Haniger before he came to Seattle, helping him re-tool his swing into one that would lead him to an All-Star season. Brian DeLunas has impacted pitching prospects and helped them develop their stuff in ways they didn’t necessarily know how to on their own.
“He’s had a lot to do with my pitch strategy and pitch design,” Sam Delaplane said. “The guy just knows a ton.”
Fellow reliever Art Warren agrees with Delaplane’s assessment, noting that DeLunas is the go-to guy in the organization to pick his brain about pitching ops, and that even in the short time they have spent together in Seattle, DeLunas has offered him “thoughtful and useful information on spin axis for particular pitches.” But even beyond the technical information, Warren tells a story of DeLunas, on a trip to the Texas League last season, taking time out of his trip to talk with the young reliever, anxious about the possibility of a big-league callup. DeLunas encouraged Warren to remain faithful and wait for his moment—something Warren reflected on fondly when his moment did come later that season.
The loss of the presence of Perry Hill has negative ramifications both on and off the diamond. During the Mariners’ Black Voices in Baseball panel that streamed a couple weeks ago, Dave Sims prompted the group to talk about “some good things that have happened to you guys as a professional baseball player.”
“Perry Hill,” responded Dee Gordon promptly. He paused, then repeated it. “Perry Hill, Perry Hill, Perry Hill. Per.ry. Hill.” His co-panelists and fellow infielders J.P. Crawford and Shed Long were on mute but put up “plus one” fingers to symbolize agreement with what Gordon was saying.
Dee, who gave Hill a copy of his Gold Glove award in recognition for the role he played in gaining Gordon that accolade, praised Hill for “not seeing color” but holding every player accountable to the same high standards. Shed Long enthusiastically agreed, saying Hill “cares about you for the person that you are.”
J.P. Crawford, another player whose defense has improved markedly under Hill’s tutelage, had maybe the warmest words to say about the man they call “Bone.”
“He definitely saved my career, man,” said J.P. Crawford. “He always holds you accountable. You could call him at 2 AM, 3 AM, you know he’s going to answer. He’s one of those coaches you know you could go to for anything and you know he’s got your back, he’s got you in anything. And you don’t get a lot of those at all.”
Hill’s impact on the diamond is without question; it shines through in the improved defense of the players he coaches. However, to have a coach whom all players feel treats them fairly and equitably absent from the team at this particular time in history is a negative effect that stretches beyond the lines of the baseball field.
In terms of what’s next for the team, the front office has a short-term contingency plan, though the final details are still being ironed out. Jarret DeHart will take over most of the in-game hitting strategy and coaching in lieu of Laker. DeHart has been with Seattle since 2018 when he originally served as a coach for the AZL Mariners. Last season he served as a minor league hitting strategist for the organization. In November, he was named an assistant hitting coach for the big league club.
Pitching Strategist Coordinator Trent Blank will take over for DeLunas as the Bullpen Coach in 2020. Blank also joined the organization following the 2018 season. He was previously the Director of Player Development at Dallas Baptist, a school known for its strong pitching development that features multiple MLB Draft picks in any given year. Pitching Coach Pete Woodworth will also assist in some bullpen coaching responsibilities pre- and post-game.
Carson Vitale will likely take over for Hill at first base in 2020. Vitale has been a quick mover in the organization since being hired in 2017. He served as a minor league field coordinator during his first two seasons with the team, but was promoted to Major League Field Coordinator for the 2020 campaign after managing the Peoria Javelinas in the AFL this past season. Vitale is a favorite among players and team personnel for his work ethic and enthusiasm, as well as his luxurious, Karen-infuriating beard.
Both Laker and Hill have one year left on their contracts following the 2020 season; DeLunas’s contract is up in October.