A pitch for morale
Major League Baseball pitcher Gabe Speier hones in on a different home plate these days.
The coronavirus has forced the Kansas City Royals lefthander into quarantine at his parents’ house in Santa Barbara.
The Speier family, however, doesn’t take a pandemic sitting down.
They rang in Gabe’s 25th birthday with their own backyard Olympic Games on Easter Sunday.
“It was a lot of fun — my whole family was there except my brother Jared, who’s quarantined in Los Angeles with his wife (Emily) and their newborn,” Gabe said.
The Speier Olympics was actually an eight-event obstacle course. It included putting a golf ball, slalom racing on a razor scooter, rolling a Bocce Ball for accuracy, volleyball spiking, throwing a football through a basketball hoop, hitting a Wiffle ball, running a slalom course and finishing it all up with a ring toss.
Gabe’s sister Lucy, a 15-year-old freshman at Dos Pueblos High, won the gold medal, edging out her mother Jenny and her father Craig. Gabe just missed making the podium, finishing fourth ahead of his fiancé, Megan Leiphardt, and brother Jesse.
“I was in such a rush, I messed up a couple of times,” Gabe said.
He’s not the only baseball player feeling anxious these days. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring training on March 12. Major League Baseball’s regular season, which would have started more than a month ago, remains in limbo.
He’s heard all the different scenarios, of either centralizing games at spring training ballparks, or at Major League stadiums with teams only playing against opponents in their region.
“Obviously, there would be no fans, but they could still get TV revenue from that, and people could watch,” Speier said. “I’m assuming things will change — they’ve changed a few times already.
“There are so many things that the players association and the owners and the commissioner still have to agree upon.”
Active roster size is one of the biggest questions. Speier, who is on the Royals’ 40-man roster, was competing for one of 26 active spots when spring training was curtailed.
One proposal is to expand active rosters to 50 since there would be no minor league teams to pull up replacements for injured players.
“We haven’t been told what the rosters would look like as far as the numbers and so forth,” Royals’ general manager Dayton Moore said. “We’re just assuming that we’ll be able to have additional players on our active roster.
“If that’s the case, then you’d anticipate taking more pitching, which is going to give more players an opportunity. That’s a good thing for them and the industry.”
Speier, a 2013 graduate of Dos Pueblos, made his Major League debut on Sept. 5 of last season. He made nine relief appearances, with the last being a four-out, no-hit outing against the playoff-bound Minnesota Twins.
If Gabe gets into a game this season, the Speier Clan will have been represented in Major League Baseball in each of the last six decades. Chris Speier, the brother of his grandfather Kurt, played for the San Francisco Giants from 1971 to 1989. Chris’ son, Justin, pitched in the big leagues from 1997 to 2009.
The 2010s were covered by Gabe’s nine appearances last year, and he was expecting to check off the 2020s this season.
“As a relief pitcher with minor league options, it was fair to assume that I was going to be sent up and down this year (without getting exposed to free agency),” he said. “I was happy about that. I figured that this would be a good time to prove myself.”
Speier has been working on a changeup to add to his fastball and slider. His velocity was ranging from 93 to 96 mph during spring training.
“My fastball-slider mix works really well against lefties,” he said. “My changeup was helping me get a lot of righties out, too. It’s something I’ve definitely been working on and getting more comfortable with.”
Speier had “an anxious” spring training debut against San Diego on Feb. 24. He gave up a one-out triple to Edward Olivares before allowing a walk, an RBI single, and then hitting a batter.
“I was rushing it a little,” Speier said. “I was really excited and was maybe a little overhyped. But every outing after that was good.”
In three separate, one-inning stints, he allowed a total of no runs and just one hit.
“In my last game against the White Sox, it was three up and three down,” he said.
Speier ended it with a flourish, striking out three-time All-Star José Abreu. But three days later, Major League Baseball pushed the pause button.
He’s continued to fast-forward his game, however.
“I speak for every professional baseball player when I say that I’d rather be playing right now,” he said, “but I also look at this as an opportunity to get better and stronger and work on my craft.”
He’s hooked up a couple of times with Austin Davidson, a minor league infielder with the Washington Nationals who lives in Oxnard. Gabe’s brother Jesse, a former DP pitcher and first baseman, has been catching him in the yard as well.
“I thumbed him a couple of times at first, but he’s getting better,” Gabe said. “He holds his own.”
He also lifts weights with a family dumbbell set and runs on the track at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Family Stadium.
And he’s also able to stoke his competitive fire at the Speier Family Stadium.
“We’ll do things like play volleyball in the backyard,” Gabe said. “Megan played at DP all four years and another year at City College, but she takes it easy on the rest of us and doesn’t do her jump serves.
“It’s all just for fun.”
The family that plays nice together, after all, stays together — and nothing is more important during a quarantine.