This is baseball’s new normal.
How long that new normal, or actual baseball, will continue amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and its rapid spread around the country is about as predictable as the path of a properly thrown knuckleball.
In a world without COVID-19, the Mariners would’ve hosted the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday evening in front of a large crowd buoyed by the interleague opponent and postgame fireworks in honor of Fourth of July.
Instead, they were just grateful to be restarting spring training after it was postponed March 13 because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Using the commercially sponsored “Summer Camp” moniker, Major League Baseball returned to its home cities Friday.
The plan is for three weeks of controlled workouts and intrasquad games followed by regular-season games without fans starting on July 23-24.
On a day where it seemed easy to see what is wrong and fragile with this entire scenario, the results of the initial testing of the 60 players and coaches on each team were released by MLB and the MLB Players Association in a joint announcement.
It provided a momentary hope that this might work. An independent Utah laboratory handling the testing reported that of the 3,815 samples collected and tested, 38 came back positive, which is 1.2 percent. Of those 38 positives, 31 were from players and seven were from staff members. Of the 30 clubs, 19 had one or more individuals test positive. Mariners manager Scott Servais confirmed at least one positive test for his organization, but would not go into any further details.
“I am not going to get into any specifics on any health issues with players or coaches here as we go along,” Servais said.
He did say that about 15 to 20 players wouldn’t participate in the first workout as they awaited final clearance to participate.
Besides the unnecessary branding, this spring training, which isn’t taking place during the spring or in Arizona and Florida, is different than any of those in the last 20 years.
The start of the changes is the mandatory in-your-vehicle temperature checks near the adjacent parking garage for anyone who plans to enter T-Mobile Park.
And once you enter the forest-green stadium, the difference can be felt. There are signs marking social-distancing protocols, directional markers pointing where you can walk and where you can’t, and even a large taped-off area in the stands where the reduced team and position meetings will be held.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference is seeing people in masks. They have mostly been visible on a daily basis in the Puget Sound area, but seeing a mask on a person in a baseball uniform, well, might take some getting used to.
People in baseball live by habit and routine. The health restrictions, guidelines and protocols, which include no spitting of chewing tobacco or sunflower seeds or spitting at all, and limitations on workouts and dining, can be disruptive to their process.
“This is definitely going to be our new normal and I’m not sure how long that new normal will last,” said first baseman Evan White. “But for the foreseeable future, this is where it will be at.”
As Servais reminded separate groups of players before participating in the morning and afternoon workouts on Friday, the new normal means any personal inconvenience or discomfort should be put into perspective for what everyone else is dealing with as a society and a country, situations far more dire than baseball.
“Strong messaging to our players and staff about how serious we have to take the protocols,” Servais said in a Zoom media session — also part of the new normal — before the workouts. “You don’t want to be the player or coach that has brought something in. It’s not just adhering to the protocols here when we get into the ballpark, but what goes on away from the ballpark. We’ve got to really pay close attention to it and take it seriously.”
He doesn’t want to hear complaints about masks, social distancing or the rules in place.
“It’s gonna be uncomfortable,” he said. “That’s another thing that I’m going to talk about is, you have to be OK with the new normal, you’ve got to accept it, you’ve got to own it going in. It gives you a chance, it gives you a better mindset to be able to handle it as you get frustrated.”
Servais mentioned the 15-minute wait in line to get a temperature test and check in with security just to park his car and get to work. On the first day, he wanted to get his day started. And yet …
“It’s just like, ‘Slow down, we’ve got to do the right thing here,’ ” he said. “And that is going to be the new norm.”
The players know and understand.
“The players’ diligence away from the field will definitely determine the success of not only this camp, but the 2020 season,” said veteran pitcher Marco Gonzales. “We have definitely spoke amongst ourselves about that responsibility to be safe and careful away from the field.”
Personal responsibility must outweigh the things they are used to in their personal lives.
“We have a lot of friends and family in this area so it’s difficult,” said Gonzales, who makes his home in West Seattle. “We have a lot of people that are in our lives on a normal daily basis and we have to be smart about seeing them or not even seeing them. It’s going to be a challenge. But the sacrifice we have to make for this season is worth it.”
After awhile on Friday, the old normal returned for more than brief moments.
If you removed the images of people wearing masks or the feeling of wearing a mask from your mind, you could still find plenty of reminders that the essential aspects of the game haven’t changed.
The unmistakable sound of the baseball hitting the sweet spot of a wood bat — that loud crack or pop — echoed through the empty stadium, powering through the music being blared through the sound system. Some of those cracks, usually when Kyle Seager, Kyle Lewis or White were hitting, were just a little louder, producing home runs that rattled off empty seats.
Even though they were taking it slowly, seeing infielders like Seager or J.P. Crawford turning double plays with ease, grace and accuracy offered further verification why they are paid to play baseball at the highest level.
From a surface standpoint, the playing field at T-Mobile is in perfect condition, having sat dormant for months. The grass was cut in perfect patterns waiting to be chewed up by metal spikes.
And the weather, the cool and gray morning followed by a slightly warmer and less gray afternoon that allowed the roof to open up, was typical of the many “summer” days before mid-July in the Pacific Northwest.
“The field looks amazing,” Gonzales said. “Being able to have some spikes on and run around out there was amazing. Just seeing guys in drills, seeing baseball action was the best part of my day. The entrance to the stadium and wearing the mask at all times in the clubhouse are things we have to get used to, but not impossible challenges.”
If anything, the shutdown of baseball and normal life reminded Servais that the life he and his players lead is unique and should be cherished. And he made sure to remind them of that privilege.
“The biggest thing that stuck with me was probably about a month into the shutdown, it was like, ‘Wow, I have taken so much for granted,’ ” he said. “And now how grateful I am for all of us to get back together today. As you get rolling along in your career and you’re in different seasons, it just kind of becomes the norm. You get a chance to go in put a uniform on and work with young players being in a competitive situation. And that quickly hit me just how much I missed that. So that’ll be the message — just be grateful for where we’re at.”