Joe Oliver was introduced as the Portland Sea Dogs manager in January 2019, He’ll back for a second season in 2020, assuming baseball makes a return this summer. “When we get the clear to go, it’s going to be an undertaking,” he says. “The biggest thing will be ramping the pitchers back up. You can’t risk injury.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In an ideal world, Joe Oliver would have arrived in Portland on Sunday. Sometime this week, he and his wife Kim would have driven down Commercial Street, stopping at Gilbert’s Chowder House.

“We love going there,” Oliver said by phone last week from his home in Orlando, Florida.

“I’d give anything right now for a big red bowl of seafood chowder and a couple of lobster rolls.”

And, after lunch, there would be that five-minute drive to Hadlock Field, where Oliver would go back to work as manager of the Portland Sea Dogs.

Of course, that scenario is not happening anytime soon, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s affected everybody,” Oliver said. “It’s strange. The internal clock says we’re supposed to be doing something, and we’re not.”

Instead, Oliver, Kim and two of their adult children (one a recent college graduate, the other a student at the University of Central Florida) are, like the rest of us, staying in the house. Their home sits near the Orlando International Airport, but there are few flights overhead these days.

“We were just commenting that’s it’s nice to hear the TV,” Oliver said. But that is a rare positive.

“I have cabin fever. I really do.”

Spring training was shut down on March 12.  The day before, Oliver moved from the Boston Red Sox major league camp to begin working with the minor leaguers. Now he’s home. It is not the first time Oliver dealt with a shutdown during spring training.

In 1990, Oliver was a 24-year-old catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, having made his major league debut the year before. But on Feb. 15, the team owners locked the players out of spring training camps, in a dispute over free agency and salary arbitration. The lockout lasted 32 days (it may have settled minor matters, but the tension provided the groundwork for the 1994-95 strike).

When the players came back, a three-week spring training was devised – pushing Opening Day back one week.

“To me (three weeks) was the perfect amount of time,” Oliver said. “We were already at spring training (most of the players having already reported) and were prepared. A bunch of guys were working out together.

“When the lockout ended, we just reported to camp – we were on the field pretty quick.”

But Oliver is quick to note the difference between 1990, when players still worked out together, and now.

“We didn’t have a stay-at-home order.”

For now, Oliver divides his time with communication, research and frivolity.

“Trying to stay in touch with some guys here and there, making sure they’re doing alright. Making sure guys are mentally OK, as best as they can be,” Oliver said.

“Trying to keep them motivated to keep them working out … we all believe (the shutdown) is going to end. We don’t want to be caught off guard. We want to be ready to go.”

While Oliver can’t work directly with other coaches and exchange ideas, he’s on the internet, looking at training videos and other insights. “Just looking at new ways of doing things,” he said.

As for frivolity, Oliver has spent more time in front of the television than he normally would this time of year. The phone call for this interview interrupted him watching an episode of the bizarre hit docuseries Tiger King on Netflix.

“It really shows you how many fruitcakes are in the world,” Oliver said with a chuckle.

But Oliver would rather be laughing with coaches and players at Hadlock Field

“It’s really a shame. I was getting really excited about the season,” Oliver said. “We got some exciting players who were going to be Sea Dogs.”

Minor league rosters are not set, but Portland fans could hope to see the return of prospects such as pitcher Bryan Mata and outfielder Jarren Duran, along with infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong, both acquired in the Mookie Betts deal.

Will they, or any players, be at Hadlock in 2020? Oliver, like everyone, is watching the news, waiting – and hoping to get the call to report back.

“When we get the clear to go, it’s going to be an undertaking,” he said. “The biggest thing will be ramping the pitchers back up. You can’t risk injury. And the everyday players can’t expect to turn around and go seven days a week.”

But they will get ready and ramped up, if they are allowed to play. Players want to play. Coaches want to coach. And fans want to enjoy.

After this trying spring, a return to baseball sometime this summer would be an elixir. Oliver knows that.

“Tell everyone (in Maine), that I wish everyone the best,” Oliver said. “I don’t know if we will be there in June, July or August, or how long the season will be … but I think it will be positive season.”


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