The 2020 MLB season is swiftly coming to an end. This season has been nothing short of historic, as players, coaches, and fans have experienced hardships and tribulations such that a typical season wouldn’t bring. As fans, we all desperately desired sports to come back to distract us from the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and to bring entertainment and excitement back into our homes. Yet rarely do we ever hear or see what the athletes go through behind closed doors to bring us the games we love to watch. To do this, we need to take a closer look into what this uniquely peculiar season has been like for the athletes involved. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Justin Williams about his experience regarding the delay of the Major League Baseball (MLB) season, the cancellation of the Minor League Baseball (MiLB) season, how he as a black player has been affected by the ongoing social justice movement taking place in baseball and throughout sports, and all about the grind it takes to make it to the show.
It’s been talked about ad nauseam, but the pandemic has made some drastic changes to the baseball world that will have lasting effects. The cancellation of the MiLB season was one of the many things that negatively impacted prospects like Justin Williams. Williams is on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, and is currently awaiting his call to the MLB at the St. Louis Cardinals’ alternative training site in Springfield, Mo. He describes the alternative sites as, “The organization’s… most focused 30 guys in the minor leagues.” Since there is no season for them to prove themselves on the field, the prospects train here and get live reps facing each other to stay sharp for the day that they’ll make it to the big leagues.
Typically, a player like Justin would be playing a full season right now with an MLB affiliate team and competing at a level that would prepare those athletes to make an appearance in the MLB. Hopefully, he will get that opportunity and make a good impression at the next level, but until then he has to make do. When asked about the current situation, Williams replied, “It hasn’t been easy. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it’s been a breeze, you know? Everyone wants to play in the big leagues, but you just have to stay focused and keep your eye on the prize because you never know when that call can come.”
He still has hope, because with such an unpredictable season and the St. Louis Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak this year, you never know when someone will go down and you will be next up. Williams said, “With the 11 players being affected, that gave a lot of guys opportunities to get looks at the big league level, when in a normal situation that wouldn’t be the case.” It’s beneficial for Justin Williams to see the positives in every situation because there’s so much that he can’t control right now.
At this point we’re all too familiar with the boredom and monotony that comes with staying at home during this pandemic. Life isn’t much different for professional athletes. When I asked Williams about how health restrictions hindered him this year, he chuckled and replied, “Well, I know this is going to sound corny but, normally, in season I’d go to the field, I eat the spread they have there and I come back to the hotel and play video games, so it kind of was the same routine for me.” I would say that I was jealous of him, but I can’t say that I haven’t been doing almost the same thing for six months. That said, Justin Williams knows what’s at stake. He isn’t willing to risk any unnecessary road bumps in his MLB journey, saying, “I can’t be selfish and go out to a bar, you know? Or go out to a club and put 30 other guys at risk, you know? That’s playing with their career and their money, and that’s not fair to them.”
Speaking of what’s fair and what isn’t, I asked Justin Williams what it was like from his perspective to see the fight against racial injustice in America come to fruition in Major League Baseball. Justin immediately harkened back to his days as a rookie: “It was just cool to see. Signing in 2013, you didn’t see much of that. Just watching Major League Baseball take part.” I could tell in his tone that this was something that meant a lot to him and was a moment of relief for him; he went on to praise some of the tenured black veterans in baseball for taking a stand as well: “Dexter Fowler, Andrew McCutchen, Jason Heyward … they actually built a page, it’s called ‘players alliance’ [to] make a platform for all social injustice.” It’s hard to imagine the pressures of focusing all of one’s attention on a game when there is so much else going on in the world around you. However, to succeed, Williams must try to do his best. His answer was simple when I asked him what his plan was going forward; he explained, “Honestly, just staying in good grace with the people in the front office, so when they’re talking about reshaping the team this offseason, I’m in the conversation because there’s no season to play my way into that conversation.”
If you were wondering why Williams is so confident that he can play his way into that conversation, don’t wonder much longer. Williams was picked in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Terrebonne High School. He is a two-time Organization All-Star (2014, 2017), a 2017 Baseball America Double-A All-Star, and an INT Mid-Season All-Star (2018). While these accolades don’t guarantee him anything, it just goes to show how much you have to prove yourself–and constantly improve your game–in order to make it on the 40-man roster of an MLB team.
So the next time you’re enjoying a game from the safety and comfort of your home, take a moment to appreciate the sacrifice and hard work that it takes to keep sports going during this crazy year.
Hi, I'm Jordan Durrell and I'm a contributor for The Bullpen. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and I'm a lifelong Dodger fan. I've been watching and playing baseball my whole life and currently play at West LA College. I've always had a passion for writing and sports.