By Bill Sterling —
Barring the year in high school Tyler Webb was rehabbing his arm following Tommy John surgery, this is the first spring since not being much more than a toddler he is not playing baseball of some sort. (The surgery, named after Los Angeles Dodgers Pitcher Tommy John, replaces a torn ligament in the arm with a ligament taken from elsewhere in the body.)
It is very obvious in talking to Webb that he’s itching to play – and the sooner the better.
Webb, the son of Kirk and Kristen Webb, of Machipongo, and a 2009 graduate of Northampton High School, was primed for the 2020 Major League Baseball season after a breakout season for the St. Louis Cardinals last year when he made 65 appearances with a 3.62 ERA and an outstanding 1.02 WHIP (walks, hits per inning pitched).
But when COVID-19 shut down baseball and all sports in March, Webb, like all athletes, was reduced to a waiting game.
He did have a plan, however.
“Our first thought was to remain in Florida and work out at the team complex,” said Webb. “Lauren (his wife) and I had an apartment with a more flexible lease than some, so we planned to wait it out until spring training resumed. Then after a week, they told us we couldn’t use the team complex anymore.”
Webb said he then found a nearby gym in Florida that remained open with some special exemptions, but that came to an end too.
“For a while there, I was working out in a driveway outside of where we were living. There was nobody there to catch me, but I was throwing to a 6×6-foot net from up to 200 feet when I was doing my long tosses. You had to concentrate to hit the net. There were a few misses but no broken windows or anything.”
Finally, as the Florida temperatures began to heat up, Webb and his wife returned home a month ago to Columbia, S.C., where they are now busy finalizing the closing details on their first house.
Webb enjoys photography as a hobby and said he took photos the week or so after the shutdown but stopped when the beaches and parks closed. He maintains close contact with family members back on the Shore through texting and telephone calls. “I wish I could travel up there and see them, but I don’t usually get to see any family this time of the year anyway,” he said.
In Columbia, he found ex-Gamecock teammate Grayson Greiner to catch him. Greiner reached the major leagues two years ago in the Detroit Tigers organization.
Columbia became Webb’s adopted home following his years at the University of South Carolina, where he was a third-team All-American relief pitcher and the school career appearances leader. In Webb’s time there, the Gamecocks won two national championships and played in a third, with Webb making major contributions while not allowing a run in Omaha, Neb., at the three College World Series.
“It’s getting to be a bit boring just pitching to a catcher,” said Webb. “I know Grayson is tired of it. He’s catching five different pitchers.”
For Webb, who turns 30 in July and saw his first full season in the majors last year after making his big league debut with the New York Yankees in 2017, time is of the essence.
Webb explained, “In the corporate world you might be able to work from home. But if you miss six months or a year in a career that could last 40 or more years, that is just a blip. For a baseball player who may play 15 years — and that is a long career, most careers are far less — one year is a chunk of time.”
That’s why Webb stated, “Any baseball is better than no baseball. I will leave it to people far smarter than me to figure out how the revenue is divided and how to play the games while keeping the players safe. I’m not involved in that. But baseball is our job; it’s our livelihood. You grow up playing baseball and dreaming of being in the major leagues. It is a privilege to be able to do it, but the opportunity doesn’t last forever.”
Whether a major league player is making the minimum $555,000 annual salary or the $36 million contract New York Yankee hurler Gerrit Cole signed for last December, players, as well as owners, are taking a financial hit with the shutdown in place.
Webb said teams have adopted different policies, but Cardinal players are receiving an advance on their salaries that will be taken out when play resumes. A major sticking point now in negotiations between players and owners for resuming play is a plan to share the revenues rather than pay prorated salaries from a shortened season played without fans.
When Webb spent four years in the minors, where players barely earn a living wage, usually making between $2,000 and $3,000 a month even at the Triple A level, he had to share an apartment with teammates to make ends meet while his wife remained in Columbia working as a nurse. In the majors, he and his wife rent an apartment in St. Louis, Mo., and she is free to travel to many of his away games.
Even with the loss of baseball income for Tyler, Lauren has not returned to work. “I am relieved she is at home right now,” said Webb. “We definitely respect the medical professionals working on the front line during this pandemic,” said Webb. “They are the real heroes.”
Webb, who communicates with coaches and players virtually, said all he can do now is stay ready when the call comes. “We need only two to three weeks because all of us should be working out. Hitters need to see live pitching and pitchers need to throw to hitters, but an abbreviated spring training will be enough.”
When baseball does resume, Webb realizes it will be different. Cardinal fans are considered among the best in baseball, but players will be performing in empty stadiums without high-fiving, throwing the ball around the infield and, shockingly, no spitting.
The proposal being discussed centers on an 82-game season starting in early-July using a universal designated hitter with teams in a different alignment with other clubs in their region, reducing travel.
“It will be strange, but I think the games will be even more important because with a shorter season every game counts more,” Webb noted. “However it is played, like I said, any baseball is better than no baseball.”
Following this interview, Major League Baseball made a proposal this week which the players’ union found “extremely disappointing.” The union is expected to make a response or a counter-proposal shortly.