Luis Rojas knows weird. He’s familiar with being uncomfortable. Strange situations don’t seem to bother him much.
We witnessed all that back in January, when Rojas was introduced as the quick replacement for Carlos Beltran, who lasted a grand total of 77 days as the team’s manager.
How unusual was that? The primary reason Rojas got the Mets’ gig was because Beltran was allegedly the Astros’ ringleader in the biggest cheating conspiracy the sport has ever seen.
Nearly six months later, we’ve come to realize 2020 was only warming up then. The highly irregular was merely the opening act for the truly bizarre, which took the shape of a once-in-a-century pandemic called COVID-19.
We’ll overlook the fact that Rojas just happens to wear the No. 19 as an odd coincidence and focus more on the perma-cool expression on his face, that same chill demeanor returning again during Thursday’s video conference with reporters. Rojas should be 86 games into his rookie season. Instead, he was preparing for Friday’s first official workout in what MLB is affectionately calling “Summer Camp,” a three-week practice session that was relocated to Citi Field to escape virus-infested Florida.
To recap, Rojas spent a little over a month running spring training in Port St. Lucie and had his whole team uprooted when baseball was shut down on March 12. He then spent the past three months trying to be a manager on Zoom, which few people had even heard of before the coronavirus.
All Rojas has to do now is figure out how to successfully navigate a 60-game season while trying to steer his roster clear of COVID-19, an invisible threat to the entire operation. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie manager. The only advantage Rojas may have is that no other manager has done this before either.
“I haven't thought about it that way,” Rojas said Thursday. “Definitely, I think every manager right now has the same challenge obviously to get the team prepared to fulfill protocols and keep everyone healthy. That's the No. 1 priority. We are playing the National League East and the American League East, so the competition level is high in both divisions. We have a challenge in front of us so we definitely need to prepare.”
What Rojas lacks in personal experience, however, he makes up for in familial knowledge, especially from his dad, the longtime player and manager, Felipe Alou. And with so much time away from the game during the shutdown, Rojas took that opportunity to discuss the unique nature of a 60-game season with Alou — or maybe how this abbreviated schedule does have parallels with what they previously have done.
“We just started talking about how it’s a sprint and how similar it is to the [Dominican] winter league, which is a league that he managed and I managed, too, as far as the length of the season,” Rojas said. “The format might be a little different, but as far as the distance and the value of one game — each game — which is a little higher now because the amount of games, it’s just a whole different season.”
“We definitely exchanged ideas. It’s always a pleasure talking to him, just discussing some things that we lived and he lived, and we can balance it. He definitely helps me out with my own repertoire, so those are great conversations.”
Alou never had to deal with what lies ahead for his son, but Rojas barely seems fazed by the great unknown presented by the COVID-19 outbreak. Aside from the protocols offered by the 108-page operations manual, there is no proven blueprint to manage a baseball team during a crisis like this, never mind guide them to a championship under this type of duress.
Rojas will need to forge a common bond to keep everyone together, not unlike what he already was trying to do during spring training. And after spending eight years as a minor-league manager in the Mets’ farm system, he already has a solid relationship with the team’s young core. That should help.
Beyond that, Rojas will have to roll with the weird, and find a way to foster consistency in a baseball world that seems to change every day. Just one significant injury or a single positive test has the capability to destroy a season. But nobody has faced anything quite like this before, and for a first-timer like Rojas, the new normal is the routine now. And in this freakish, uncharted territory, maybe he can be the compass for the Mets.
“I can't tell you more than this — this is who I am, this is what I am,” Rojas said. “My job is to get the guys ready and to communicate with them and having them prepare, having them anticipate anything that they can encounter in this different season.”
So far, different is the only way Rojas knows.