Baseball players constantly talk about having and sticking to a routine. However, for players in Major League and Minor League Baseball, the yearly routine of preparing for the season at spring training in either Arizona or Florida was devastatingly disrupted when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended league operations on March 12 due to COVID-19.
For former Titusville Rocket baseball players and current professionals Adam and JJ Bleday, the sudden postponement has allowed them to share valuable time with family and each other.
Business as usual
A short time ago, JJ was just a few weeks into his first big league camp in Jupiter, Florida with the Miami Marlins after being the organization’s first-round draft pick in June 2019. He entered camp with high expectations for himself and from the club, and it didn’t take long for JJ to impress.
On Feb. 22, the Marlins took the field in St. Lucie, Florida against the New York Mets in their first game of spring training, and JJ was slated eighth in the starting lineup playing right field. Sporting No. 67, the former Titusville Rocket stepped into the batter’s box for his first plate appearance in the second inning with Sean Rodriguez on first base and no one out. Then, with a full count, JJ knocked a single through the right side of the infield off Mets southpaw Chasen Shreve for his first hit.
Reflecting on the moment, JJ called it “fun and an awesome experience,” and added that he “didn’t think much” of the single coming in lefty-lefty matchup.
“I think I hit lefties well, and righties, too,” JJ said. “I was honestly prepared because I was ready for a lefty. To me, I always hate facing lefties, but they’re fun to compete against because it’s a tough at-bat and a tough angle. All you can do is go in there and compete. That’s what I was willing to show (Marlins Manager Don) Mattingly and the staff. It doesn’t matter if it’s a righty or a lefty; just give me the at-bat, and I’ll go and do my best.”
JJ made eight more appearances in big league games with the Marlins, finishing camp a combined 3 for 13 at the plate with a run scored and an RBI.
Beyond the statistics, JJ admitted that he took a lot away from watching veteran players such as Corey Dickerson, Matt Kemp and Rodriguez go about their preparation and routine during camp. He took mental notes about caring for his body, an effective diet, the timing of events throughout the day and having a proper work ethic.
“It was great to see how they worked and how they are dedicated to their craft and to baseball,” JJ said. “It goes to show if you do these things, work hard and go out and perform you’re going to have a long career. That’s probably what I took the most; having a good routine and being mature about how you handle yourself off the field as much on the field.”
Meanwhile, Adam was in the midst of his second camp as a coach with the Baltimore Orioles player development staff about 160 miles east in Sarasota, Florida. As a part of the organizational overhaul that the Orioles went through prior to the 2019 season, Adam joined the Orioles last year as the developmental coach of their Carolina League high-A affiliate in Frederick, Maryland.
In late February and early March, Adam was getting accustomed to what his home for the 2020 season was going to be — Ed Smith Stadium. Slated to be the pitching coach for the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League rookie-level team in Sarasota, Adam was looking forward to the new challenge.
“I really like the setup there,” Adam said of Ed Smith Stadium. “Not only because of the great facilities, but also being able to work with the guys who are freshly drafted into pro ball and some of the younger guys in the organization; just to give them a solid foundation from where to build up. It’s fun being at that level.”
As a minor league coach, Adam spent all of his time on the minor league side of camp before the March 12 shutdown.
Last season, Adam was given the opportunity that all Baltimore minor league coaches received of taking in a day at big league camp that included a showdown against the Philadelphia Phillies. However, because of the postponement, he didn’t have the chance to take in a major league game from the Orioles dugout as he did a year ago.
Adam described himself as a “fly on the wall” when he took part last season and admitted that space was hard to come by in the dugout.
“It’s always fun to go up to the big league level and watch those guys work out for a day,” Adam said. “I stood in the dugout, as it’s crowded in spring training. You kind of have to find a good spot. I talked to some of the guys and just enjoyed the game.”
The day baseball was shutdown
JJ recalled being in one of the Marlins’ team hotels outside Jupiter when news broke of spring training being cancelled. Miami Marlins Vice President of Player Development and Scouting Gary Denbo addressed JJ and his fellow minor leaguers and told them of the decision to send everyone home.
“(Denbo) just said that they were sending us home, and they weren’t sure how long this was going to be,” JJ recollected. “They told us to do our best to stay in shape and be ready when this thing is over."
JJ made the trek back home to Panama City Beach, Florida the next day and was joined by Adam.
Adam and his colleagues were following the news leading up to postponement, although he “didn’t expect them to shut everything down.”
“You have to do what is best for the players and the country,” Adam said. “It’s different being at home right now in March because it’s been years (since I have been at this time). I’ve been in pro ball for the last four years, so it doesn’t seem right.”
Cherishing family time
Although the Bledays would like to be back on the diamond in the middle of their respective seasons, the unexpected time away from the game has allowed them to be surrounded by family. After putting in the work in the mornings to stay ready for the season, Adam and JJ have enjoyed family time playing board games, building puzzles and cooking meals in between rounds of golf on the greens of the Florida panhandle.
On Sunday, they sat down together and watched “Vandy Day” on the SEC Network, which featured a handful of Vanderbilt games from the 2019 campaign, including the 2019 National Championship victory over Ole Miss at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
Kathy Bleday, mother of JJ and Adam, admitted it was “a little strange” watching the games with JJ sitting beside her. Adam, who made it out to three games in Omaha to support JJ at the College World Series, added that it was “nice to relive some of those games."
One thing is certain, Adam and JJ are focused on treasuring their time with the family before returning to their normal state of being consumed by the game they love.
“Even though it’s kind of a tough time and a weird situation, the good thing about it is that everyone is in it together,” JJ said. “It’s been good being able to wake up and see them in the mornings and hang out. I cook dinner for them and vice versa and we just socialize. We take it for granted sometimes, but right now we can make up for some lost time.”
Staying ready for the field
Adam and JJ have each other to help them stay ready for when baseball does resume play. In the mornings, the duo takes advantage of the warm Florida sun by getting in workouts to keep their bodies in shape before going to a nearby field to do hitting and fielding drills.
Being a coach, Adam has the added responsibility of regularly checking in on some of the players in the Orioles organization.
“For the most part, a lot of it is the initiative of the player for them to work out and continue to throw,” Adam said. “We send programs out to them to follow, but it’s a little different doing the remote training. We’re trying to do what we can right now, and I think we’re doing a good job with it.”
JJ is making sure he is taking that initiative of staying in shape with the help of his brother.
“We’re able to get outside every day and be on a field to throw and hit,” JJ said. “Obviously, we are being safe and keeping our distance when we do go out in public. Honestly, I’m just trying to keep that good activity going on a daily basis that way my body stays in great shape. It’s harder to get back in shape than it is to stay in shape.”
Adam and JJ are brothers, yet, they are able to have somewhat of a coach-player dynamic during their time together.
“I don’t know how much he listens to me with hitting per say, but he’ll always ask for my opinion, and I’ll give it,” Adam said. “For me, it helps because he’s a normal player in the minor leagues. I talk to him like I talk to my players, so it helps with my communication in terms of connecting with a player and trying to get a point across.”
When professional baseball does start back up again, the Bledays will go their separate ways once again, but they’ll also have each other and their family to thank for being able to get through these uncharted times.