WASHINGTON -- Sunday brought one more too-early turn, a left onto the concrete steps hundreds of feet before the clubhouse doors or usual walk to central elevators. Up the stairs, through blue double doors and onto the first concourse. Walk around toward home plate. Reach the aforementioned elevators, but, typically, take the stairs up six flights as the signage suggests. Then pivot into the auxiliary press box previously populated by television production folks taking a break.
Nothing about 2020 baseball at Nationals Park was normal, including a reporter’s path to their seat. The preparation, play and departures were bizarre. Equally strange was covering it. The way vibes disappeared among those playing, everything also shifted for those writing about the sport. It’s over now for everyone associated with the Nationals. The end of the 2020 season -- seemingly such a galactic goal three months ago -- arrived Sunday when they blew out the equally hapless New York Mets.
Alterations to the season’s mechanics were widespread. Monique wasn’t there to take your payment in the media dining room in between self-empowerment book readings. John wasn’t there to cook and venture out from the flat top grill to peek down to the field. He knew little about baseball when he started to work at Nationals Park years ago. Being stationed in press dining made chatter about the sport unavoidable. “Everything I know about baseball I learned from you all,” he said last year. This year, he wasn’t seen once. You wonder if he is all right.
The clubhouse being off-limits to reporters is the grandest change to the job in 2020. Previously established relationships -- or managing new ones -- became irrelevant. No side conversations occurred. No building off something said in the moment postgame one night, then readdressed the next day. Extra bits of information only possible by inter-mingling with players were wiped away. Did someone limp back to their locker from the training room? Who spent time together in the clubhouse? Who ran the music? Who laughed? Who sulked? What did all the baseballs suddenly mounted to the hallway wall mean? All those clues were extinguished from coverage.
Instead of being pestered by reporters, the players were spitting every other day for their coronavirus tests -- but not allowed to otherwise. Food was provided in to-go boxes. The clubhouse spilled outside of its doors and into the bus ramp. Several players were marooned in a neighboring hotel during the season. Their work week consisted of walking from the hotel into a security entrance a block away, playing under all the protocols, then walking back up the sidewalk to the automatic doors of the hotel. Once back into their rooms, video games and Netflix helped fight the losing battle against repetition.
Even leaving was a challenge. Adam Eaton and Sean Doolittle, both on the 10-day Injured List, had to depart before without sufficient goodbyes. Doolittle was hurt on a Thursday, then came to the stadium to consult with team doctors the next day. He didn’t realize until Saturday he was no longer allowed back in.
“When I left on Friday night, when I limped out of there, that was the last time I was going to be in that clubhouse with those guys,” Doolittle said Sunday. “I was focused on my injury at the time. I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms yet. I didn’t say goodbye to anybody. The staff or any of my teammates or any of the coaching staff. That was tough. To have that sink in, and be like, yup, it’s over. You’ll never be around this group again.”
Two men who will remain had a chat Sunday. The unusual circumstances allowed it.
Managing principal owner Mark Lerner walked to the edge of the dugout in the middle of the game. He leaned on the green railing stationed against the stands. Davey Martinez walked over for a greeting and extended discussion the day after Martinez’s contract extension was announced. The game went on while they conversed.
At the end, a final horn sounded. The Nationals finished 24-36, tied for last in the National League East with the Mets, then walked toward the dugout for one more reminder of how abnormal the year was. Two blue tables covered with Sharpies were on either side of a red laundry basket. Each player pulled the jersey off their back, signed and tossed it into the basket. This is an annual tradition with fans on the field, which includes posing and giddiness. This year, a club employee grabbed the half-full red basket and tugged it down the dugout steps in silence.