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Mets players discuss coronavirus as team deals with typical spring training illnesses

Jeff McNeil of the Mets waits his turn

Jeff McNeil of the Mets waits his turn at the batting cage prior to a spring training game against the Cardinals at Clover Park on March 4, 2020 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Credit: Getty Images/Joel Auerbach

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On a sunny, 84-degree morning during batting practice at Clover Park on Wednesday, a longtime Mets staffer extended a hand in greeting to chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

Wilpon declined the handshake offer and instead gave the staffer a hearty backslap.

According to new Major League Baseball guidelines that ESPN said were sent out to teams this week about combating the spread of coronavirus, Wilpon did exactly the right thing.

Coronavirus fears have not spread through the Mets clubhouse, even though the team is dealing with what players consider a “normal” spring training run of sickness.

Steven Matz was sent home with a cold on Tuesday but returned to camp on Wednesday. (Matz’s locker is next to Jacob deGrom’s and three away from Pete Alonso’s.)

Jeff McNeil, whose locker is all the way across the room from Matz’s, said he is starting “to feel a little something right now,” but he was in the lineup against the Cardinals. Other players have had the sniffles since camp opened last month.

“It’s something that’s just normal,” McNeil said.

Mild illnesses in baseball locker rooms happen every spring. But the coronavirus doesn’t happen every spring, and that’s why MLB is sending out guidance to teams about what can be done to keep the deadly disease out of its midst.

For example, according to ESPN, MLB will be advising clubs to tell players to avoid taking pens from fans when they sign autographs and to politely decline handshakes. There is a line of fans behind home plate during batting practice before every game in spring training and the regular season, but players are more likely to stop and linger during spring training.

“It’s definitely scary,” said first baseman Dom Smith, a proponent of fist and elbow bumps over handshakes. “We definitely [already] practice a little more hygiene than normal. We deal with a ton of kids and adults. We know that we need to wash our hands constantly. We need to use hand sanitizer. It’s scary.”

The Mets on Wednesday had their annual spring training meeting with MLB security. Players said the topic of coronavirus came up only briefly, and they were told to contact an MLB point person if they had any concerns.

"They gave us a number and a name to contact,” Michael Conforto said. “We didn’t talk about it at length. It was just kind of a question that somebody had at the end and then that was the end of the meeting.”

The hopeful news for professional athletes is they already are drilled in proper hygiene procedures from day one of their careers because it is so easy for illnesses to spread in the close quarters of locker rooms, hotels, planes and buses.

The bad news is even the best routine practices don’t always stop the spread, whether it’s in spring training or the regular season. Colds and flus often rip through professional locker rooms. Teams do the best they can to contain the spread, but the coronavirus has led to ramped-up measures in other countries.

Japan’s baseball league is holding its spring training in empty stadiums as fans have been told to stay away. In South Korea, spring training has been canceled altogether. Back in Florida, the Pittsburgh Pirates fumigated their Bradenton spring training clubhouse during an off day on Monday after a coronavirus case was confirmed in the same county.

Just as with most people, Mets players are aware of the coronavirus from news reports but are trying not to panic.

“Maybe I should be more [concerned], but I’m not really worried about it,” said Brandon Nimmo, who said his wife, an emergency room nurse at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, will return to work when spring training is over. “It hasn’t become too big of an issue here where I think we need to cancel things, but obviously it could very quickly. Obviously, I’m not a medical professional, but my advice to everyone is to wash your hands — a lot.”

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