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One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

When Bryce Harper signed his then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last March, the stands at Spectrum Field in Clearwater were filled to the brim on a daily basis while the media scrums in the home locker room had twice as many reporters firing questions.

That’s what happens when the most polarizing player in baseball, a former MVP and No. 1 overall pick who’s drawn his fair share of both fans and critics, joins a big-market organization looking to jump back into contention for the first time in almost a decade.

But a year later, with the Phillies having missed the playoffs entirely and much bigger storylines dominating the sport, things have been calmer in Clearwater this spring.

"It's definitely different coming into camp," Harper said Tuesday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. "It's good knowing I'll be here the next 12 years, a lot more calm, not as crazy, not as many cameras. I'll enjoy that and just get ready for the season."

Harper made his spring season debut Tuesday, going 0-1 with a walk and sacrifice fly while playing five innings in right field. With a month to go before the start of the regular season, Harper’s goal for the rest of spring isn’t too complicated.

"Just be healthy," he said. "Take good routes in the outfield, throw the ball well out there, have good at-bats."

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Exclusive: Max Scherzer on baseball’s stoppage, its limbo, and what is important when it restarts

Exclusive: Max Scherzer on baseball’s stoppage, its limbo, and what is important when it restarts

Max Scherzer’s days at his rented home in West Palm Beach consist of maintenance and Moana.

He arrives there Jan. 1 because Christmas is behind him and the time for baseball is approaching. It’s also warm. So, there’s that. By the end of March, he’s gone, into another year of the non-stop season.

But this time, he’s still there on March 31 instead of in Miami making what would have been his second start of the season. Scherzer works out in the morning with weights and bands he gathered before FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was shuttered and converted to a coronavirus testing site. He has a throwing partner, and works off a mound a couple times a week, throwing 40 to 50 pitches in each session. He’s trying to convince his brain it’s December, again, not March.

Scherzer is with his wife, Erica, and their two daughters. The youngsters know dad is home a lot. That’s about it. They also know they want to see Moana, and a child’s demands are uninfluenced by the altered universe outside or their father’s Hall of Fame prospects. It’s one of the few normalcies.

In between the Disney watching and workouts, Scherzer, a member of the eight-player MLBPA executive subcommittee, was part of the group trying to work a deal between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league. Baseball has never gone through this kind of stoppage before. So, there was no blueprint. And, the two sides have not been operating gleefully the last two years when public animus between the groups was high. However, in this pressing crisis, something needed to be done swiftly and with singular focus. Everyone knew baseball needed a deal.

“That was a pretty stressful 10 days there,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington in a phone interview Tuesday. “Both sides were motivated to get a deal done. We knew we needed to come together and do something about it. Getting down in that rabbit hole, really had to go through some phone calls to understand all the moving pieces that had to be addressed. There were so many different players that were affected in so many different ways. Really tried to come up with what everybody wanted and what we could obviously kind of bargain for to be able to get the best deal possible.

“Service time was very important to every player. That’s just the lifeblood of this CBA and what the players need. We really wanted that backstop no matter what happened -- whatever is going to happen during this year -- to make sure every player is going to be able to get service time. Once that piece kind of got in place, and we agreed to prorate salaries, everything else kind of started to fall into place.”

The reported framework for moving forward was born out of those discussions. Safety is first, and will continue to be, as the sides try to determine when the season should begin. Maximizing the number of games is a huge priority. Flexibility is also paramount.

Players and organizations map out the offseason based on report dates and the first game of the regular season. When those are known, everyone works backward. Projecting forward is key once the season begins. Neither can be accomplished without a start date.

Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said an optimistic view would target mid-May as a time to ramp things back up. Scherzer backed that idea, saying a target date to start games would be June 1. Three weeks of spring training prior would be necessary. However, Scherzer emphasized nothing is firm.

“Even then, we don’t even know if that’s even going to be possible [to return to facilities],” Scherzer said. “There’s absolutely nothing written in stone. No one can truly forecast what’s going to happen in this pandemic. It’s just trying to give a loose forecast of what we anticipate we could have happen. For us, everybody's just following what the CDC is going to recommend.”

Let’s use June 1 as a hypothetical marker -- again with the reminder this is not being suggested as a concrete date -- when considering what could come from the 2020 schedule. How can the schedule be massaged after two-plus lost months in order to deliver the maximum number of games? What would cold-weather playoff solutions look like? What’s the necessary amount of regular-season work to have a legitimate season?

Those are among the slew of questions after an opening date is settled on.

“I think everything’s absolutely on the table of what we want to be able to do to get the most amount of games in, and I think that includes playing through October,” Scherzer said. “And just finding any which way we can to get in as many games as possible to have it reflective [of a full] season, so that when we do have the playoffs, when we have a World Series champion, whoever wins the World Series this year is going to earn it.

“I think you can go down a few [total] games and get into the playoffs because whoever is going to win these games -- because that means as a team you’ve been staying ready. You’ve been preparing without a date and trying to fight your way to be able to get this. For me, whoever ends up getting into the playoffs and wins the whole World Series, you’ve earned it because everybody is in the exact same situation right now not knowing when we’re going to play, how many games we’re going to play. Everybody is handling this of their own accord. Whoever navigates this crisis the best, gets to be the champs.”

One thing Scherzer is convinced of: November postseason baseball, should it exist, would have to be at neutral sites that could all but guarantee a proper environment to play in.

“The teams in the north, once you get into November, the weather can be too cruel for baseball,” Scherzer said. “So, this isn’t a permanent thing. But this is just what we have to do to be able to play baseball and try to get as many games in [as possible].”

And, the work to make the season happen is far from over. The players -- whom Scherzer touted as thoroughly connected during the first negotiation -- need to again come together with the league. Will players accept ties so games don’t go beyond nine innings? What will the roster limits be? Will the injured list parameters be adjusted? How many doubleheaders would be acceptable? On and on and on.

“We might have been able to get a deal done, and that’s a great milestone considering [we’re] navigating a great crisis,” Scherzer said. “But we still have a ton of challenges in front of us to make decisions about what the season’s going to look like.”

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Nationals GM Mike Rizzo preparing for when MLB season returns

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo preparing for when MLB season returns

Spring training slammed to a halt just two weeks before the season was supposed to open. The stoppage ended the pulse that comes with baseball, a daily injection of grind which lasts for six months and knows no breaks beyond a 24-hour respite here or there.

So, the stoppage is extra-strange in a sport constructed on daily endeavors. Especially one coming off its grandest lull the month before. Baseball’s winter was back to normal, for the most part, making the Winter Meetings a place for business again and finishing transactions well before spring training was to begin. Then everyone transports themselves into the sun to head toward the season.

This year, that all stopped. Abruptly. The coronavirus has shut the spring training facility in West Palm Beach and Nationals Park in the nation’s capital. Mike Rizzo is now like everyone else: isolated and waiting.

“You miss the ramp up to the end of spring training and all of the energy that that brings,” Rizzo said. “Opening Day and that type of thing. Those are all the things you miss. This is going to be a very, very special Opening Day for us when it happens. We still have that to look forward to. On the brighter side, the glass half-full view is we're the reigning world champions and we still are clutching hard to that trophy. We've got ourselves a banner-raising ceremony coming. We've got ourselves some beautiful rings that we're going to be able to wear around D.C. in the very near future. Although we're thinking daily and hourly about the humanity of what's going on right now, but we also have that to look forward when we get through this thing and we come out the other side and baseball begins again.”

The Nationals have made two rounds of transactions since baseball shut down. Some of the moves were procedural, others roster-building decisions (such as releasing Hunter Strickland). Most can be reversed if the Nationals decide to do so when/if baseball resumes.

“None of them preclude us from any of those players we optioned out to make it on the Opening Day roster,” Rizzo said.

So, what is he and the rest of the front office doing during this stoppage?

“We’re very busy,” Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of moving parts with what’s going on in the game right now, so we’re in constant contact. I’m speaking to ownership quite a bit, speaking to our staff quite a bit, we’ve got some projects that we’re working on as far as some long-range projects since we have a little bit of down time, some specific projects for the 2020 season as far as readiness and preparation and that type of thing.

“It’s impossible to put together any kind of player development-type of schedule until we get a little more clarity, but we’re in constant contact with our amateur scouting staff about the Draft and our player development staff on our Minor Leagues and our Major League staff also. We’re keeping ourselves busy.”

His staff is all working from home. They are on audio and video calls with each other. The medical staff is talking to players daily about the “coronavirus-mandated protocol that we have.” The trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, pitching coach, hitting coaches and positional coaches are also checking in with players.

In short, everyone is trying to make do after baseball -- and much of the world -- stalled, replacing day-by-day with wait-and-see.

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