TAMPA, Fla. — On March 10, 2020, spring training guest instructor Willie Randolph spotted a friendly face in front of the Yankees' dugout at Steinbrenner Field before an exhibition game.
The person walked up to Randolph and offered an outstretched hand.
"Oh, no," Randolph said, backing away with a smile. "Can’t do that anymore."
Two days later, spring training shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The players are back in Tampa this year, but the guest instructors aren’t. Randolph, Ron Guidry, Tino Martinez, Reggie Jackson . . . all of the former players and managers who used to come to spring training to work, or to schmooze, or to just be their famous selves, have had to stay home because of COVID-19.
"That's been one of the bummers of this camp," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said this past week.
Or, as Luke Voit eloquently put it: "It stinks."
Last year, Yankees guest instructors included the four mentioned above, plus CC Sabathia, Hideki Matsui, Lee Mazzilli, Stump Merrill, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Swisher and Bernie Williams.
"You never know who's going to come in that clubhouse," Clint Frazier said. "You never know what kind of conversation you're going to have."
Having guest instructors in spring training is not new for the Yankees. Joe DiMaggio did it. In 1962, he was a guest instructor when the Yankees trained in Fort Lauderdale. Marilyn Monroe, his former wife, was spotted at the team hotel — which, like DiMaggio, was called "The Yankee Clipper."
Mickey Mantle was a guest instructor. Chances are he didn’t do a lot of instructing. Just being The Mick was enough.
Yogi Berra probably dropped a lot of sage wisdom as he ambled around the complex, even if you had to strain to hear his words.
Goose Gossage was a guest instructor for many years until he was banned by general manager Brian Cashman in 2018 for popping off too often about the state of the game, or the "nerds" in front offices, or anything else that was on his mind.
Don Mattingly was a guest instructor in the Joe Torre era after getting the benefits of guest instructors when he was a player.
"I know I felt that instantly in New York, going to camp," Mattingly told WFAN’s Sweeny Murti on his "WFAN Baseball Insiders" podcast. "Mickey Mantle’s there. Whitey Ford’s there and Phil Rizzuto. Catfish Hunter . . . Catfish and I, we would have a game every year before he left camp. We’d have like a five-inning game where we’d start the count at 1-and-1 and he’s actually trying to get me out. It was good for me and so much fun."
It was fun for fans, too, who almost always could count on seeing a Yankees legend around the batting cage before a spring training game, maybe score an autograph or a photo.
Jackson, in particular, was a frequent visitor in recent years on the field and in the clubhouse. Mr. October became Mr. March.
"Reggie and I had a lot of good interactions whenever he was around," Frazier said. "It was more just me trying to push his buttons and get him to say something that would just make me laugh. I miss those interactions. But, obviously, I think everyone kind of understands with the way that things are going right now."
Said Boone: "I certainly miss having a lot of the people that come through here, whether it's a Willo [Randolph] or Stump or Gator that’s here the whole time, or guys like a Tino or Alfonso that pop in for short spurts. You miss that. That's one of the cool things, really, about any spring training but, I think, especially about Yankees spring training.
"I think any time you can tap into people that have worlds of experience — and the people we bring in, [we] have everything from managers and coaches to All-Star players to Hall of Fame players — to have that connection to the past and have that connection to the different generations of this game . . .
"We're all trying to pass on the game better than we left it, and to have those people here to bounce things off of, those are some guys that I talk to get their thoughts on things with the current club and what's happening in the present.
"But, also, it's a lot of fun for me. I know as somebody that is very nostalgic and grew up in this game, to hear their stories and perspectives is something I miss."
Most teams have gone without guest instructors this year, but the Phillies, under manager Joe Girardi, have welcomed special advisers Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel into camp every day. Bowa and Manuel had to agree to undergo all of the COVID-19 protocols in order to be part of the former Yankees manager’s spring training staff.
Bowa, as fiery as ever at age 75, is living with the protocols, even if he’s not loving them.
"You get tested every other day," Bowa told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You do the spit test on your way in and that’s something you really have to get used to. You have trainers walking around saying, ‘Hey, put your mask on, pull it up higher, you’re not covering your nose.’
"It’s not annoying. I’m glad they’re doing it. But it’s different. There’s hand sanitizer every 10 feet. They have arrows where you can stand during lunch."
Said Girardi: "I’m really happy that both of them are here. They have so much knowledge, they have an understanding of what it’s like to manage, to play in Philadelphia, which I think is really important for the players to understand. When I’m here coming in, Charlie and Larry already have worked out, they have a lather going and they’re sitting talking baseball. It’s been really, really a pleasure for all of us to have them here."
Voit hopes he can see the guest instructors again next March, when — hopefully — the world has returned to normal. The Yankees don’t have an Old-Timers’ Day scheduled for this season, so that might be the next time players and fans get to see the legends of the past.
"It's just nice to have those conversations even in the lunch room, shooting stuff with them," Voit said. "They’re baseball lifers. Love to be around the game. Just good people. You wish you could have them back here all the time and just have their company, bring back stories and good times. But you got to do what you got to do, and hopefully the next time around, or even during the season, we see Andy Pettitte and CC and all those guys around the stadium because those guys, it's fun. It’ll brighten up your day."