Former major league pitcher Josh Roenicke, the son of former Oriole Gary Roenicke, is one of the very few Americans actively playing sports competitively during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 37-year-old pitcher plays for the Uni-President Lions, one of the five teams in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League — the first professional baseball league to resume play since the outbreak began. The regular season opened April 12.
“We’re just happy and grateful to have this job right now. I know so many people are suffering with business and families and it’s just … we tend to complain out here with some of the things that go on, but when it comes down to it we’re very blessed and fortunate to be here right now,” Roenicke said on Glenn Clark Radio April 13th.
Roenicke was recently quarantined for 15 days after traveling into Taiwan, forcing him to miss his team’s opening game. He watched alone in his hotel room as his team went to extra innings and won in the 11th, probably one of the more exciting aspects of his isolation.
“Time stands still honestly, it was incredible. I’d be up at 8 a.m. every day. Ubereats kind of saved my life. I’d have Starbucks delivered, and three times a day the hotel would bring a box of food that they set outside your door,” Roenicke said of his time in quarantine, adding that he enjoyed “a lot of Netflix, a little reading and I’d do a workout and my throwing every other day.”
Roenicke says he initially threw real baseballs into a comforter set up in the corner of the couch. The last couple weeks he had a weighted ball and glove to throw into.
The CPBL has been able to resume play because of Taiwan’s early efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control ordered inspections of passengers from Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, started preparations to test for the virus and traced those were in contact with infected individuals — all before Taiwan’s first confirmed case in mid-January.
The U.S. and other nations around the world have been trying to implement strategies from Taiwan and other countries that have been battling the coronavirus effectively. But while the U.S. is trying to contain the virus, baseball in this country can’t quite yet follow the Taiwan model.
Any return to normal play seems far off, and some major aspects of the league must be changed to play in the near term. USA Today was the first to report an idea to return teams to their spring training locations in Florida and Arizona. The plan calls for a realignment of divisions based on spring training location, and of course, no fans in the stadiums.
“It’s a job and it is what it is, and it’s obviously sad and it’s tough, but it’s what we need to do right now,” Roenicke said. “I don’t know if it’s going to work in the states with their new plan, but we’ll see what happens.”
This type of plan for the MLB would cause families to be separated, as players are isolated in certain locations to allow them to play. Since he’s played outside the U.S. for the last four years, Roenicke has plenty of experience being away from his family and is doing it again right now.
“It gets harder and harder for me to leave every year honestly, and this is my 15th season, and having four kids now, that wasn’t easy again,” Roenicke said. “I think coming over here makes it harder, being 9,000 miles away. That’s not a quick flight for them or for me.”
Born in Baltimore, Roenicke pitched in the big leagues from 2008-2013 after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2006. He spent time with the Reds, Toronto Blue Jays, Colorado Rockies and Minnesota Twins before pitching in the minor leagues from 2014-2016. After a season with the Pericos de Puebla of the Mexican League in 2017, Roenicke signed with the Lions.
“I won the ERA title in 2018 and had a pretty good season last year, got injured a little bit, but the job’s been there the last three years, so I keep coming back,” Roenicke said.
Having experienced his last spring training game without fans, playing without a crowd is both a positive and negative thing for Roenicke. But the pitcher loves having his fans behind him in Taiwan.
“I told someone else, these games get really rambunctious and loud and they kind of vibrate a little bit, so pitching in silence, you can think a little better and it’s a little more peaceful, but I’ll take the fans every time,” Roenicke said. “The fans love it here, so I’m excited for them to be able to come back in eventually.”
Without the fans, the game becomes solely about the game. There’s nobody cheering, booing or heckling you from the stands.
“You hear everything,” Roenicke said. “You hear the chatter. … Guys make mistakes, they drop f-bombs, you hear them pretty loud and clear, so it’s kind of funny.”
For baseball players in Taiwan, life is seemingly returning closer to normal. They’re able to shop, eat out and play baseball while the majority of the world is quarantined at home unable to even watch sports. Players are now staying in dorm-style housing, and their travel is being limited to protect the league from a potential outbreak.
“Honestly, this country has done a great job,” Roenicke said. “I think there’s been like 300 or 400-plus total cases. … It did a great job early on and it’s allowed us to play.”
For more from Roenicke, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Twins