The camp counselor gathered the kids in a circle, making sure they were spaced out properly. He shouted out instructions, slowly turning to make eye contact with everyone. Eventually the kids broke the circle and got on with their activities.
This might sound like a normal summer camp to you, but it most definitely is not. In this case, the camp counselor was White Sox manager Rick Renteria, who was wearing a mask. And the children were actually grown men -- White Sox players -- keeping a wide enough circle for proper social distancing.
Welcome to MLB “Summer Camp” in a global pandemic.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Friday, players started to trickle out of both the home and visitor dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field for the first workout session of the White Sox’s attempt to begin a season that was supposed to start over three months ago. Some players, like Dylan Cease, wore the same uniform worn in Arizona during spring training. Others, like Lucas Giolito and Steve Cishek, wore generic black workout tops. Tim Anderson sported a “Change The Game” shirt, representing the team’s 2020 slogan.
Indeed, the game has changed. Sure, Friday morning's session on the South Side was refreshing because the sounds of baseball were back, but there was also a distinct “should-we-really-be-here?” kind of vibe in the stadium.
“Boy, it was just fun this morning to be back out on the field and seeing guys playing catch,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “Just hearing the sound of baseballs … today was a was a nice step forward for all of us, but there’s going to be challenges along the way.”
One of those challenges is that Major League Baseball teams are being tasked with executing a second spring training with access to only one field, all while maintaining proper distancing. For the White Sox, that means using both clubhouses in the stadium and adding more lockers to areas where furniture sat before. It means adding extra batting cages and pitching mounds to the service tunnel on the ground level. And, most importantly, it means everyone, from coaches to players to support staff to employees to reporters, doing their due diligence to keep everyone healthy. Everyone -- including reporters -- have to get their temperature taken when entering the ballpark.
“We have two groups, two separate groups, one in the morning, one in the afternoon,” Hahn said. “And then we have sort of A and B groups within those groups to help keep the rotation going and keep guys socially distant from each other … These are going to be a little bit longer days in order to get everyone their work in and do it in a safe and responsible way. But you’ve got to look at it from a net positive standpoint. There may be some challenges associated with it, but the bottom line is we’re building towards playing baseball.”
Manager Ricky Renteria set an opportant tone as he made the rounds on the field Friday. In his usual jovial manner, he joked to his players: “You can finally see my face!” Except they couldn’t, because he was properly wearing a mask throughout the morning workout. In fact, most of the coaching staff wore masks.
“Wear your masks for goodness sake,” Renteria said later.
On the field, cones were spaced out along both foul lines to keep players distanced from each other during warmups. Giolito and Cease played catch and long toss in the outfield, as pitching coach Don Cooper looked on from the bullpen. Cishek threw a bullpen session on the newly constructed pitching mound down the left field line. And eventually, Eloy Jimenez took a bat and started smashing baseballs into the seats during a hitting a session.
These indeed were signs that Major League Baseball games are on track to return, potentially in just 20 days. But there were also enough signs around the ballpark -- including the silent concourses that will be even more deafening when games return without fans -- to remind everyone that it won’t take much to stop the progress that is being made.
As of Friday, the White Sox were not ready to announce results of their COVID-19 testing as players arrived at the facility this week. Hahn said when the numbers are available, the team will announce how many tests were done and how many positive tests were recorded, if any. As good as it felt to be back on a baseball field, Hahn knows that any given test can lead to a sobering reality check. He admitted that he doesn’t want to see head trainer Brian Ball’s name pop up on his phone.
“Today was a real nice step back towards normal, but we realize what we're dealing with is going to be day to day," Hahn said. "We have to continue to understand that the health and safety of our players, staff and community are of the utmost importance with baseball being secondary to that at many times over the course of next few months. You know, ideal world, we go through this unscathed and get through October and have a successful season.”
The ideal world would be nice, but the White Sox, like everyone else, realize that nothing is ideal right now.