Nationals manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo understand that being successful in the world of Major League Baseball during the coronavirus pandemic boils down to two main challenges: staying safe and playing good baseball.
From day one of summer training at Nats Park today, the skipper for the defending world champions already feels the difference in playing baseball during a pandemic.
“We have to be socially distant, so that’s one thing,” Martinez said during his afternoon Zoom video call with media. “There’s a lot of different protocols that we’re going to follow to keep our players’ health, safe, staff members, everybody surrounding. I spent hours and hours with (Tim) Bogar, myself, Paul (Menhart), (and Mike Rizzo) talking about scheduling and what we want to do and how we want to accomplish it to maximize the most we can for each individual player and getting them ready. Right now, our focus is just getting these guys back on the field and individually building them up so they’re ready to go in a few weeks.”
The skipper made sure the team knew from day one to get ready for the season but also be extremely careful to wash hands and wear masks all the time.
“Obviously, we can’t have any team meetings like that right now,” Martinez said. “But I did send out a short note, a brief note, to all the players that are here in camp explaining the situation, explaining what’s going to happen. I talked to some veteran guys over the phone throughout the last few weeks to get them to understand that it’s not only for the safety of them, it’s for the safety of their families, of their teammates, coaching staff, trainers. So we’ve got to be smart about everything.”
Players were wearing gloves during an afternoon batting practice session, even when soft-tossing. Catching fly balls in the outfield, players wore masks. Along with a baseball glove, each fielder wore a batting glove on his throwing hand.
Martinez used an example from his former colleague Joe Maddon, now the manager of the Angels, about being diligent in following safety guidelines on and off the field. That’s actually more important than winning games right now.
“I know Joe Maddon said earlier today, if you can’t follow protocol, maybe you should opt out. And I agree with Joe,” Martinez said. “This is going to be tough for everybody. 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.”
Rizzo said he will continue to travel with the team, as he has done in the past, even during a shortened 60-game season. He says he will monitor how safety guidelines are being administered while he is on the road with the club.
“My plan is to be with the team and travel with the team,” Rizzo said during his Zoom video call. “I think it’ll be a little more effort that will have to be taken into being there, but also being socially distant. But I think we’ll figure all those things out as we go.
“My primary job is to make sure that protocols are in place, players are safe, their families are safe and the staff is safe. That’s my No. 1 job right now, and I think the team that does that best and is most efficient at staying healthy and being a cohesive unit where we follow the rules and take care of each other will be the teams that are the most successful.”
And that key point is critical when players on the road are tempted to leave their hotel to socialize. Rizzo said the team that focuses not only on the field of play but also on staying safe off the field will have the best chance to win this sprint in the end. You can’t win if you are not healthy, and that’s the motivating factor.
“I think it is,” Rizzo said. “It better be. It’s going to motivate us. It’s going to be a big topic of conversation within these walls. We have to care for each other. We have to be a good teammate. We also talk about thinking about the name on the front of the jersey more than the name on the back of the jersey. If you’re thinking about the team, you have to conduct yourself in a way on the field and off the field that is conducive to keeping yourself healthy. Which in turn keeps the team healthy and keeps healthy players on the field.”
What about day-to-day, especially during games? How will players refrain from spitting sunflower seeds or high-fiving a teammate after a big play?
“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.”
As summer training begins and the Nationals get ready for their first game against the Yankees in prime time on July 23, some wonder whether MLB can actually complete its season as it’s now scheduled. A wave of positive tests could wreck that schedule. Does Martinez believe the season can be pulled off in its entirety?
“You know, honestly, that’s a good question,” he 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.”