What was it really like playing during COVID-19? Behind the scenes with the Yankees through a player’s lens


Before the 2020 season began, New York Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino decided to document what was sure to be one of the most unusual years in MLB history.

Armed with a Leica M240, a trio of lenses and an iPhone, he snapped photos of his teammates and their often surreal surroundings, keeping an eye out for moments that highlighted the quirks, oddities and absurdities of playing professional baseball in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“A bit into the season, I just texted some people and was like, ‘Take a look at these. Do you think these are cool and all?'” Ottavino told ESPN. “And then we ended up here.”

To get a behind-the-scenes look at a year in the life of a ballplayer during the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN asked Ottavino to share some of his favorite photographs and the stories behind them.

‘It just made me feel like there’s no way this season is happening’

ADAM OTTAVINO: During the shutdown, Gerrit [Cole] had moved to Connecticut, and that’s pretty close to where I live. We discussed on my drive up from Tampa throwing together, so for a while, we were throwing in my yard. Then eventually, as we got closer to summer camp finally starting, the Yankees let us back in the stadium. Obviously I knew that there was a narrative on Gerrit coming to the Yankees as a big free agent. People were probably dying to see him on the field. So I figured it was a good opportunity to kind of present him with the whole stadium empty there and just kind of get that epic shot. It was the first time he was there as a Yankee, even though it’s not a game.

ESPN: It seems like a super intimate moment, the first time pitching off the Yankee Stadium mound. That could’ve easily been lost to history.

OTTAVINO: I wanted the fans to get excited. We knew baseball was coming back kind of soon at that point. I just knew what it meant because I was a Yankee fan growing up, so I knew what the anticipation of him coming to the team meant. I just wanted to put a little teaser out for them.

OTTAVINO: That’s Gerrit Cole throwing in my backyard during the shutdown. That’s another photo that I took that was similar to the one of us getting into the stadium. I knew that people would kind of eat it up that he was practicing still during the shutdown, just kind of at a semisecret location.

When we bought our house in Westchester, I definitely didn’t think we’d be throwing bullpens in the yard getting ready for a season in the middle of the summer at any point.

OTTAVINO: You see the mask on the trainer, Mike [Schuk], and then on [Aroldis Chapman] and just kind of how weird the scene looks. This is from the early days. I think Chappy had just come back from being COVID-positive. This is just in the trainer’s room, doing his arm stretch, but both guys had masks on.

I just tried to get shots like that because especially at the beginning, it was a very jarring experience just to be kind of doing everything that you’re used to doing a lot more carefully.

OTTAVINO: This is our COVID test. We had to do that every other day, sometimes every day, and it was just part of the process. It became second nature. Like, get to the field and go and take the test right away. So I just took a picture of the tube showing exactly what we were doing every day.

ESPN: What was your mindset toward COVID-19 at the beginning of the season, and how did it change from the beginning of the season to the end of it?

OTTAVINO: I don’t know that I ever feared COVID for any of the players necessarily — most of the guys are in really good health — but I did worry about other family members. I’m worried about my parents. But I feel like at the beginning we were wondering: Can we all trust each other? How is this going to work? Are we going to get shut down? Worrying about the season getting shut down, especially the way it started early with the Marlins and the Cardinals.

As the season went on, we realized that every single guy on the team was really committed, and the coaching staff as well, so we were going to make it through. We just had to stick to the program.

OTTAVINO: So when you pull up to the stadium and you go through the loading dock area, that’s where these intake guys were set up, and he would quickly come by your car, you would roll down the window and he’d take your temperature and ask you if you filled out your daily symptoms screening. Then if there was a spit test that day, he’d tell you to go down and do that, but I just thought it was interesting to see how geared up they were every day and that initial process of getting in. It feels very serious when you see a guy like that.

ESPN: What was it like on that first day to see a bunch of people dressed like this as you’re going in to prepare to play a baseball game?

OTTAVINO: It just made me feel like there’s no way this season is happening. That’s the way it felt. OK, so we’re doing all of this because this is contagious. How are we not getting this? Something bad is going to happen.

But sure enough, we were able to pull it off, so we were proud of that.

OTTAVINO: Zack [Britton] is drinking a coffee. He’s just making a joke because we can’t use those tubs because they drained them. He was just down in the tub standing there drinking his coffee like, “I’m getting my hot tub in right now.” Just making little jokes. The bullpen guys were always joking around with each other.

ESPN: What other changes were made that were abnormal?

OTTAVINO: They separated everybody and used all of the space. There was more buses than usual. Usually all the players are on one bus. Now there was a position-player bus, a pitcher bus and more and more buses as time went on. We were doing temperature checks every day out on the field, filling out on our app all the symptom checkoffs, and then there was rules about wearing a mask inside the whole time [and] as much as possible in the dugouts. It’s hard to remember everything because it became so second nature.

OTTAVINO: That’s one of the team doctors talking to one of our head trainers. We saw a lot of the team doctors this year.

We had a lot of meetings and there was Zoom calls with the wives and family all talking to the doctors — everybody trying to get their heads wrapped around what it was going to take this season.

OTTAVINO: That’s what [Masahiro Tanaka] would typically do before a start, but obviously you can just see that it’s different. The trainers were even more protected than most everybody else. They were double-masking and wearing shields a lot and wearing gloves because they come in contact with every player.

There was a little more pressure on them, I think, than anybody else because that’s one spot where if they were positive for a while, it could really affect a lot of people.

OTTAVINO: There’s a bunch of guys there. There’s [Mike] Tauchman in the foreground and then [Erik] Kratz behind him and then [Luke] Voit is down there talking to Kratz. I think he might have just hit his round. This is pregame. Obviously guys are doing their pregame work down in the cages.

ESPN: How were pregame routines different this year?

OTTAVINO: One of the biggest differences was that we spent less time at the field. They set up the times a little later, so there wasn’t as much hanging-around-doing-nothing time as we typically have. It’s more like, get to the field and you have this much time to get ready to do whatever you have to do.

OTTAVINO: That’s just I think summer camp. [Clint Frazier]’s out there doing his sprints. I feel like Clint was the guy on our team that surprisingly was all-in on wearing the mask all the time, so he wore the mask the whole season except for maybe a few games at the end. Even when he was hitting. I think the only reason he switched it up was because he didn’t get a hit for a few games, but he was all-in on wearing the mask the whole time.

He said he was just trying to be as safe as possible, but I think he was doing it for a little bit of intimidation factor.

OTTAVINO: It’s early in the season. I think [DJ LeMahieu] just led off the game with a home run. I was down that day, so I wasn’t in the bullpen. I was just down all the way at the end — they extended the dugout.

What you’re seeing here is the guys with their hands up. That’s where the pitchers who aren’t involved with the game are sitting to not crowd the dugout. I think this is like the photographers’ well over here.

OTTAVINO: Jordan Montgomery had started the game, and unfortunately it started raining, so they pulled the tarp and he was trying everything he could to stay in the game, hoping that the rain delay wouldn’t be too long. So that’s the indoor mound at the stadium in the batting cage, and he’s in there throwing, trying to stay loose, trying to simulate an inning, hoping that the team would let him go back out there.

I don’t think it worked out. I think that he ended up having to get taken out, and I remember him being pretty upset about it because he was like, “Man, I’m finally feeling good tonight and now I can’t pitch anymore.”

‘One of the guys that didn’t see his family for months on end’

OTTAVINO: This is in Baltimore. We trained it back to New York on Amtrak [on a] private train. [Manager Aaron Boone] was standing there just kind of supervising, like watching everybody go by, so I just thought it was a good shot of him. It was pretty late at night, we’re in an empty Baltimore train station that’s normally packed, getting on an empty train to go back to New York to play baseball games in the middle of a pandemic, so I just thought his expression was something to capture.

ESPN: Is it unusual to ride the train as a team during the season?

OTTAVINO: We do it from time to time, obviously Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. or maybe Boston. I think the players actually kind of prefer it to the flying. They were trying to spread us out on the train, so we had a private train, but I think there was like six or seven train cars. You could really space out, and that’s why we were trying to do the train whenever possible.

OTTAVINO: This is the process of getting on the plane. Guys are getting off the bus, they’re getting their IDs checked, a couple people are getting screened.

That’s Brett Gardner with his arms out down there. Boots on.

OTTAVINO: That’s J.A. Happ. We each had our own row on the planes. Happ is one of the guys that didn’t see his family for months on end. He was making a big sacrifice this year and just trying to stay locked in and pitch well, and I think he might have pitched that night.

He’s having a little beer, a cool-off at the end of the day before his flight. He’s looking at his hand, checking out the moneymaker.

OTTAVINO: So this was basically when the plane lands. In the past they would kind of put all the bags in a truck and bring them together to the clubhouse, but this year people were splitting up a lot, a lot of times [taking cars] right from the plane, so everyone was kind of waiting for their own individual bag.

But that’s the process of everybody waiting for your bag after you land — and just being in a huge mass of impatient people, basically.

‘There’s literally no one there’

OTTAVINO: Throughout the years I’ve always shot all the stadiums, before anybody gets there. I never really did the Trop [Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays]. Last year, I never really got around to it, so this year we were there — I just think their roof is so unique and it’s just such a unique place to play. It feels like you’re playing in a convention center.

I grew up watching it, and when I got there I couldn’t believe how different it felt.

OTTAVINO: That’s the cameraman [at the Trop] who is getting ready to shoot the game. The game is probably at least 30 minutes away from starting, but from the photo you would have no idea. There’s literally no one there.

He’s just reading his book and I just thought, this guy is here and he’s getting ready to shoot this game to bring it to people on TV even though there’s absolutely nobody at this game.

OTTAVINO: I tried to take a lot of that stuff, like a lot of signage from all the different ballparks we went to. Just because they were literally different in every park, and it was interesting to see what every organization came up with. Some had a little more personal touch than others.

ESPN: It’s also just such an absurd sign. Like if you had shown someone a photo of this a year ago, it would be so confusing.

OTTAVINO: It’s one of those things where you’re like, “Is this really helping?” But obviously that was in the rules, so that’s how it was set up and I just wanted to take a picture of a ridiculous sign.

OTTAVINO: In Buffalo [at Sahlen Field, where the Toronto Blue Jays played most of their 2020 home games] they made an outdoor weight room. I think that might be a beer garden normally during their Triple-A season there. But they had set up these huge military-style tents, which is where our lockers were.

The first time we went, it was good weather, and then the second time we went it was pretty cold. So they were kind of running out of time on this outdoor concept.

OTTAVINO: A real Red Sox fan might know exactly where we are there. It’s like all the way down the third-base side, kind of where the visitors locker room is, and it’s just interesting to see it set up in that hallway.

ESPN: Fenway’s visiting locker room is so small to begin with.

OTTAVINO: Exactly. They just kept the coaches in there and they put all the players out in the hallway. I feel like I was trying to show the uniqueness of that situation. You can see the brick there, the signage. [Giancarlo Stanton] and DJ’s locker. It doesn’t hurt that those are two popular players, but I also feel like it’s very distinct that that’s Fenway.

OTTAVINO: This is Kyle Higashioka making fun of [fellow catcher] Erik Kratz, who’s right behind him with a beer in his hand looking like, “Is this guy kidding me?” We had just beat Cleveland in the wild-card series. That’s why there’s some beers around. There wasn’t too much of that. We weren’t allowed to spray the clubhouse or anything this year, but Kyle does a really good Kratz batting stance impression.

Also in the photo you can see that they divided the lockers. Those clear dividers, that was a new thing for us.

OTTAVINO: So in San Diego [at Petco Park, where the Yankees were eliminated from the postseason by the Rays], we would do a lot of our warm-ups and stretching and rolling out and things of that nature in the concourse hallway.

And of course, Giancarlo is a freak, so he’s got a 45-pound bar that he’s using to loosen up with. I thought that was interesting because most people are using a tiny little dowel and he’s got a 45-pound bar. It was kind of funny and just shows a little bit of how G is different than the other guys.

OTTAVINO: That’s Tanaka. He’s sleeping there. I think the season might have just ended. We might have just lost the night before. I think we might be on the way to the plane or maybe the last game. Hard to say, but he was getting a rest in, obviously, on the bus there.

I just thought it was a cool shot.

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