Wade LeBlanc signed a one-year deal with the Orioles in early February that, if he made the major league roster out of Spring Training, was worth $800,000. He was set to join a crowded rotation with a shot to pitch in the major leagues.
But over the last few months, LeBlanc found another way to pitch -- and other batters to pitch to.
Instead of pitching to major league hitters in the spring and early summer, he pitched to the seven year olds on his son’s coach-pitch travel team due to the coronavirus pandemic and the delayed major league season.
Now, he’s able to give up that job as the Orioles held their first “summer camp” practice of July at Camden Yards, three weeks from the start date of the 2020 season. But the return to the field wasn’t a normal practice for anyone involved.
“It’s pretty weird to say the least,” LeBlanc said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Today we went out, stretched, played catch, I threw a bullpen today. Get ready for a sim game in a couple days. Washed my hands before and after I was in the bullpen, which was kind of strange. We did some conditioning, took care of some arm exercises and all that kind of stuff.”
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The Orioles, like every team across Major League Baseball, have taken exhaustive measures to ensure the safety of the players in the organization.
Some of those measures include hand-washing stations scattered across the field, coaches keeping their distance while still giving instruction, and spaced out clubhouses.
For first baseman Chris Davis, one of the biggest adjustments is going to be the act of not sharing the baseball around the infield like he normally does.
“I think probably the weirdest thing for me is going to be throwing the balls out in between innings or even in between just warming guys up and stuff like that,” Davis said. “I think there’s going to be like a recycling ball station on the field where you toss it and they’ll throw it in a bucket. That to me is going to be the hardest or the biggest adjustment, just the attention to detail of not sharing a ball too much.”
Manager Brandon Hyde said everyone, with the exception of Dominican players who had just arrived, reported as scheduled. He declined, however, to say if anyone in the organization tested positive for COVID-19.
“When you’re out on the field, it feels normal,” Hyde said. “It’s definitely different in the clubhouse. It’s different in the coaches’ room. There’s just a lot more protocols that we’ve all bought into to really make this a safe, healthy season, and do everything we can to keep us safe as well as the players and the coaches.”
As of now, no players or coaches are expected to remove themselves from the Orioles’ roster for the upcoming season.
Both LeBlanc and Davis said that was never particularly under consideration for either of them.
“With so many unknowns there’s always going to be some reservations here and there, but outside of that you understand you have a job to do and for the last 13, 14 years this is kind of all I’ve known,” LeBlanc said. “It’s wanting to get back to normal for the most part. Normal as much as possible. It’s something that, as baseball players, we want to get out there and play baseball, so that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the Orioles still have to be focused on the upcoming season.
For players like Davis, it’s a chance to continue their hot streaks from back in Sarasota, Fla., during Spring Training, games and workouts that seem an eternity ago.
For younger players on the roster, it’s a chance to earn an opportunity in the majors — despite the shortened season.
“We’re still trying to find out about a lot of guys on our roster,” Hyde said. “I was really encouraged by the momentum we had in camp. I thought we played well, I thought our work days were fantastic. We’ve talked about capturing that momentum again.”
And as Hyde pointed out, the Orioles are in contention from the day they step on the field for the regular season.
“We’re going to be in first place in late July,” Hyde quipped. “That’s really exciting for all of us.”
Through all the excitement, however, exists a new normal that no one on the field has experienced in their baseball careers.
That includes Davis, a player who in his career has led the league in home runs, won a game as a pitcher, went on an 0-for-54 hitless streak and played a game without fans in the stands.
Today topped them all.
“This is definitely the most odd, just random, weirdest thing that I’ve ever encountered on the baseball field,” Davis said. “I think it’s going to start to feel more normal the longer we are under all these protocols and guidelines, and that’s kind of my hope, that we develop some sort of routine where this becomes our normal for the time being.”
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