WASHINGTON -- A heart with the letters “DC” was cut into the middle of center field Friday at Nationals Park. A member of the grounds crew dragged the hose onto the infield to water it down while an unrelenting 94-degree day baked the dirt. Orange agility cones sat in right field. The batting cage framed home plate. And, a light breeze stirred in the park’s upper reaches.
Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman adorned the giant outfield posters beyond center field. Scherzer’s eyes remained on a booth above right field. The giant video board was blank and black.
It was in this setting baseball in Washington took its first steps toward trying to pull off a post-pandemic season in 2020. The Nationals worked out through the day, being dispatched in pods, making the park work the best they can. They had to use the clock to create space since there are not enough mounds or fields. The whole scene was strange.
This weekend was expected to come with fervor. Houston was supposed to be in town for a three-game series. Dusty Baker would be in the opposing dugout. Trash cans would brace for a weekend of abuse, as would the Astros. The line to get into the stadium would have shot up toward the Navy Yard Metro stop; bars across the street would have been packed; the weather would be thanked.
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Instead, seagulls were the main source of noise in between workouts Friday. Scherzer pitched a simulated game early in the day, going two “innings” and 65 pitches, before a group of position players trickled on the field around 2:45 p.m. The workouts are running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Players are being tested before they hit the field. Davey Martinez is fighting urges throughout.
“The first thing you want to do when you see the guys come in after not seeing them for a while, you want to give them a big hug, a fist bump, high-five,” Martinez said. “Had to stop myself today from almost spitting in my mask because I drank some water -- you're just used to it. But, yeah, those things are going to be things we have to abide by just because of the safety precautions. So, we're trying to figure out what we can do to emulate some kind of handshake or fist-bump or elbow tap or feet tap, whatever. We'll figure something out.”
Major League Baseball is trying to play 900 games in 30 cities in the middle of a pandemic. The odds of it working are low. Mitigation is a key concern. Being diligent is an ongoing topic. Mike Rizzo said players will not go out when on the road. Martinez spoke about extrapolations: it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else. Then, he wondered if the whole thing could be pulled off.
“You know, honestly, that's a good question,” Martinez said. “Honestly, I don't know, but we're going to do our best to keep everybody safe. We really are. These long days are meant to keep everybody away from each other right now with social distancing. Wearing a mask. Our coaching staff is wearing masks on the field. So, we're trying to do everything we can to keep these guys safe. Getting tested quite often. So, we're going to do everything we can to keep everybody that's involved safe.”
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Earlier in the day, Martinez’s longtime friend and mentor, Joe Maddon, suggested if players can’t follow the health protocols set forth by the league, they should opt-out of playing. Martinez agreed. If you are in the park, on the flights, in the field, the expectation is every rule will be followed precisely. Winning depends on it.
“This is going to be tough for everybody,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong. You’ve got to be prepared for things that we’re not used to doing on a baseball field. Definitely going to be a work in progress. But I think our boys understand what’s happening. The guys that are here want this to work, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it work.”
A batch of outfielders took ground balls and pop outs in right field around 3 p.m. Adam Eaton’s voice could be heard -- so there was at least a portion of normalcy there. Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson and others slowly moved about the field before making their way to home plate to hit. The sound of bat meeting ball echoed throughout the park.
All the blue seats were empty. The gates were locked. No organ, no perpetual smell of food, no season-ticket holders assembling in the 300 level behind home plate where so many chants originate. The first day was almost over. The hardest days are still to come.
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