In a normal world, Pat Malacaro would have boarded the bus in the parking lot behind Sahlen Field around 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Roughly five hours later, Malacaro and the Buffalo Bisons would have been in Scranton to prepare for their Triple-A season opener.
The Herd and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders had Opening Day planned for Thursday night in PNC Field, but it won't happen. Nor will Buffalo's home opener here April 17 against Rochester.
In the coronavirus world, the ballparks are quiet. Players, coaches and staff are in limbo. And that means our voices of spring and summer remain silent as well.
"It's real but it's not, and I guess it will all probably hit me when it's time for the bus," Malacaro said this week of the delayed start to his third season as the Bisons' radio/TV play-by-play man. "You're thinking about what you would be doing right now. I've been wrapped up with some of the things we're doing social media-wise as an organization, so the 2 p.m. bus ride, that's when it will really hit me that there's no games and we don't even know what it's going to look like.
"What would a season look like if there's baseball in the big leagues and what does it mean for the Triple-A level if we have to have players go to the big leagues to be ready? How does my role change? We just don't know anything yet."
Malacaro was having a super spring. The South Buffalo native headed to Dunedin, Fla., and got to call three Blue Jays games with Toronto voice Ben Wagner, who graduated from 11 years in Buffalo to the big leagues in 2018. They worked home games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore and a game against the Yankees from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto and MLB.com.
"It's almost like you're riding a bike. We're such good friends and we're always talking about roster moves, what you know about this guy or that guy," Malacaro said. "There's constant communication. So we did those three games and there was hardly a spot where I stepped on him or he stepped on me. We had that instant connection on the air from the 8 or 9 years we worked together."
"We didn't miss a beat. It was awesome," Wagner said by phone from his home in Dunedin. "Inside jokes are still funny. We sit there, rib each other for three hours, call a ballgame together, pack our stuff and walk out of the booth. There was buildup from doing it with him last year and how much fun we had only magnified the chance to work with Pat again. I think the world of him and where he's come as a broadcaster."
— Ben Wagner (@benwag247) March 9, 2020
Malacaro initially served as an intern with Bisons broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus, doing interviews and score updates. He got his first baseball break calling three years of Batavia Muckdogs games from 2006-2008 and is like any player making the climb hoping to get to the top. He's had a taste the last two years in spring training with Wagner.
"It totally gets real when you do that," Malacaro said. "The second game this year was in Tampa and we had a low minor-league player called up who made a crazy over-the-shoulder catch to end a half inning. The next day, I saw (Bisons/Blue Jays outfielder) Jonathan Davis around the cage and he was joking with me how it was cool to hear me call that play. He was like, 'That's my guy.'
"It's fun for me to get these opportunities and a little crazy that guys like 'JD,' who made SportsCenter top 10 catches and saved the T.J. Zeuch no-hitter with his catch, is hearing me call games in spring training and hearing my voice and remembering the relationship we've built. To me, that's one of the most exciting parts of it."
Wagner knows what Malacaro is going to go through the next couple of days. He's already endured the weird feeling. The Blue Jays' wiped-out opener was going to be March 26 in the Rogers Centre against the Boston Red Sox.
"The idleness of it was tough," Wagner said. "There are few days on the calendar that make me more excited than Opening Day and it doesn't matter if it's at home, on the road, whether I was in Lakeland, N.J. (where he did Class A ball), Buffalo or the Rogers Centre. That day you use your adrenaline, you put all of your homework together with the conversations you have and the hours you spend in spring training clubhouses or in front of your computer. You get it all together and it's the easiest broadcast to do. It's so much fun.
"You just feel unified as a baseball culture, a fan perspective. Everybody knows when Opening Day happens. I just embrace that day. I was very melancholy knowing it was on the approach and we weren't going to be there. They day itself felt really, really weird. It left me longing for a lot and it took a couple days for me to snap out of it. You miss Opening Day and it adds a finality to this situation."
Wagner and his wife, Megan, sold their Lancaster home after last season and decided to relocate to Dunedin to be near the Blue Jays' year-round training complex. A fringe benefit is that the long spring training grind is no longer a road trip. Wagner lives 10 minutes away.
"It's weird in that I was waiting for baseball to come find me all offseason and then it did," Wagner said. "And doggone it if I'm not waiting for everybody to come back and find me again."
Malacaro said he's been following how other announcers have filled their days with things such as live Twitter chats and other social media work. He got a good laugh at Fox's Joe Buck calling routine life events as play-by-play and put his own twist on that with a Twitter video of a "starting lineup" as he was making tacos for dinner.
The best lines included "leading things off is the ground beef," "in the cleanup spot are the jalapeños, ready to add some extra pop in the lineup tonight" and "the skillet is warming up on the countertop."
"I had my eight elements and figured if I added the M&Ms for dessert that I'd have my starting nine," he said. "You added temperature, game time, anything to be creative. It was organic at first but then you lay it out and you didn't want to be too goofy. I hope, if nothing else, people laughed at me if not with me at the same time."
Laughter has to be good medicine at this point. Life has interrupted sport. In a sign of the times, the Jimmy Griffin statue outside Sahlen Field is sporting a chicken wing mask. Malacaro said Bisons president Mike Buczkowski, new General Manager Anthony Sprague and assistant GM Brad Bisbing have made sure to stay in touch with their employees for whenever a season gets the go-ahead.
"They have done a really good job keeping us engaged and making sure that we have to be ready," Malacaro said. "I texted Anthony that we don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm ready to run through a brick wall for you. We have to be ready for whatever it is the big leagues say we'll do. The part that hurts the most is we can't be that outlet for people the way it's been forever."
— PatWGR (@PatWGR) March 24, 2020