2020 – The Year of the Gator: The multi-part account of the creation of the Great Falls Gators

By Willy Yahn

Prologue: Calm before the Storm

What do you think of when you think about spring? Naturally, as a baseball player, I think about a typical and enjoyable day of Spring Training. We arrived at Buck O’Neil Spring Training Complex at 7 AM on a pleasantly warm Florida day to enjoy breakfast and coffee with the guys. The Sarasota morning sun beat down on us while we took batting practice and ground balls, hoping for an outward breeze to carry some balls over the fence as well as to cool us down. Next, a Minor League Spring Training game, which for us meant we played either the Red Sox, Twins, or Rays. That has been an average spring day for me for the last three years, and besides waking up early I loved every minute of it. 

2020 Orioles Minor League Spring Training felt different for many reasons, even before the pandemic struck. For starters, there were a lot of new, young coaches that were brought in along with new player development staff members. There were new drills and new ideas that I had never seen or heard of before. They were testing how our bodies moved and operated in relation to our swings and throwing mechanics, for pitchers. It was fascinating to me. Some of the concepts were completely foreign and confusing at first, but the science obtained from new technology within the game spoke for itself. For me, I was excited to learn more ideas about baseball. It was interesting to me to see a teaching style to a game that I know so much about, and I was ready to embrace it in order to get better.

This was after the final intrasquad we played during Minor League camp at Buck O’Neil Spring Training Complex before we were sent home because of the pandemic. “It was a simpler time, it was a better time.”

Without going into too much detail, the new style and approach injected into our Minor League system was received well by the players, from what I could see. We discussed everything we were doing in detail from baseball drills to our lifting programs. Players asked questions and received answers that were backed up by analytics and examples of other people who were doing similar things and experienced success. Our player development staff preached a growth mindset, the idea that even if you are given a task that you have trouble with or don’t want to do, you will attack it with your best effort in order to make yourself and your teammates better. What we had going on at camp, from the beginning of early camp on February 17th until Spring Training was shut down, was very exciting and productive work on all sides of the ball. Hitting, pitching, defensively, we were putting in man hours, with intent, day in and day out. 

The day that all changed would be a day in history for negative reasons. Life for Americans and the entire world became very different for the remainder of 2020. This is a series of tales about what a Minor League ballplayer did during a pandemic. 

Chapter 1: The Epidemic & The Roaches

It was March 13, there was a buzz throughout the Orioles Minor League Spring Training clubhouse. No one had any idea what was about to happen. We all heard about Coronavirus breaking out in spots within Sarasota and, to a much larger scale, in various areas of the country. The NBA had positive tests and had already paused their season indefinitely on March 11th. We all had a feeling that Major League and Minor League Baseball Spring Training was in trouble. 

My girlfriend, Lindsey, and I had planned in advance for her to visit for a week during her time off in March. So she was literally on the plane to Florida when all the players received an email to notifying us that Spring Training was being shut down immediately and that we had to go home as soon as possible. Tough luck, eh? But originally when they said this, the timeline was only for 2 weeks to a month. We players knew this was not ideal and a scary health situation for the entire country. But with the temporary timeline that was in place, it sounded like an issue that we would soon have in the rearview mirror and then get right back to baseball. That was quite the miscalculation. 

I picked Lindsey up from the Tampa Bay airport and told her the news. We were both upset because in the grand scheme of things this was a scary situation for our loved ones and the whole country. But she knew having Spring Training and baseball taken away hurt me. This moment that I had worked for through another cold and miserable winter was on pause. Selfishly, I was feeling good in a few Spring Training intrasquad games and was excited to build off of a successful 2019 campaign. The realization that 2020 would not provide that chance was a major low-point. 

After Lindsey and I had a car ride from Tampa International to Bradenton to dissect the situation, we arrived at our less-than-ideal Airbnb situation. For starters, it was a Bungalow in a 55+ community, to which we were given the wrong lot number. My memory is slightly foggy because I blocked this misery out and it was approaching 2 AM so it went something sort of like this. 

We pulled up to Lot E6, which it said on the website, but we learned after the fact that we were supposed to be at Lot E15. I got out and the Bungalows looked similar but the entrance instructions on the App were not matching what we were seeing. Then, we hear what sounded like the barks of a small-sized dog inside the Bungalow, followed by footsteps. An old man came to the door looking incredibly concerned. 

“What are you doing here?” the elderly man asked with a soft intensity probably half awake, the poor guy. Lindsey and I stood on his porch and explained how we had gotten into this confusing situation and apologized for disturbing him. We tried contacting Airbnb to figure out the issue, to no avail. So, frustrated and tired as could be, we left the 55+ community with the back of the Tacoma overflowing with all of our belongings. We got a hotel room for the night to finally get some sleep until we could get this sorted out in the morning. 

We got it all squared away the next day, with a refund for the night from Airbnb, and at last we got into our double-wide Bungalow. I’m not kidding you, I absolutely loved this Bungalow. It was the perfect size for just Lindsey and myself, but if we had one more person it would have been far too small. 

After we were settled in we met up with friends for food and drinks on the water, had a grand old time, and Uber’d back to the Bungalow and went to bed. That would prove to be our only smooth-sailing day of Lindsey’s trip to Florida. 

  The next day we went to beautiful Siesta Key for a beach day. We used one of the beach accesses further down from the main part of Siesta Key to find a less crowded area and socially distance. But we looked down the beach and could see a flood of people gathered for Spring Break festivities, right at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a scary sight. 

Lindsey and I returned to the Bungalow and started to get ready to go to Texas Roadhouse for some steaks. I was watching TV in the living room area and heard Lindsey start going bananas over something in the bedroom. I entered as she continued to scream while she explained that she saw a massive cockroach and it was somewhere in her clothes. I did what any man would do: I went to the kitchen and handed Lindsey a cooking utensil and hid behind her and ushered her towards the cockroach. I was so brave!

The cockroach retreated under the dresser and Lindsey and I really did not know what to do. We called Airbnb and explained there were cockroaches, only to be told, ‘It’s Florida, one or two cockroaches isn’t a huge deal’. I am trying my best to not take any jabs at Florida but come on people, that should not be normal!

Anyway, we were starving so in the meantime we put our belongings on the bed and couch to keep the floor crawlers off of our things and we left. We ate juicy steaks at Texas Roadhouse after we returned to assess the situation in the Bungalow. What we found was nothing short of nightmare fuel. 

Cockroaches. Not one, not two. Many cockroaches. About a dozen or so. Darting across the floor randomly left and right in every part of that Bungalow. What a scene: Lindsey and I frantically tiptoed around palm-sized roaches as we evacuated the infested double-wide dwelling. We shook out all of our clothes and belongings to make sure we would not be taking any passengers up north. It was approaching midnight, and Lindsey and I hit the highway to get as many miles between us and the overrun cockroach Bungalow as possible.

Additional Chapters will follow shortly!

3 thoughts on “2020 – The Year of the Gator: The multi-part account of the creation of the Great Falls Gators

  1. Art Walters

    Good stuff, Willie…..I’m looking forward to reading more about your Gators…. I sure hope that you get to play a full season with the O’s this year. Good luck!


  2. Julie Stofan

    So funny! Cockroaches (or Palmetto bugs which we prefer to call them) are just a part of living in Florida. Can’t wait for the follow up to your blog post.


  3. BILL!

    You’re the man!! A Sarasota story without Fuzzy’s, Livingston’s, Sarasota Lanes, or O’Leary’s… that’s how you know the world flipped upside down


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