Would Nationals train and play in D.C. or West Palm Beach?

There are so many questions that must be answered before baseball returns, but let’s attempt today to tackle one of the most pertinent questions facing the Nationals: Where would they hold the resumption of spring training, and then where would they play their season?

Based on Major League Baseball’s official proposal to the MLB Players Association, it looks like the answer is: In Washington, as long as it’s safe to do so, and as long as local authorities say it’s OK.

Those are some pretty big qualifiers, and we’ll get to them shortly. But it does appear MLB’s preference is for as many teams as possible to hold “Spring Training 2.0” in their hometown ballparks, not their usual spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona. And then to play all home games in their regular hometown ballparks, traveling only to other cities in their division and the other league’s same geographic division.

For that Nats, that would mean a roughly three-week training camp at Nationals Park, then a roughly 82-game season that would see half of the games played on South Capitol Street and the other half on the road in New York; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Miami; Baltimore; Boston; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Toronto.

(Toronto is the most iffy city on that list, given Canada’s current requirement that anyone entering the country must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Unless an exception is given to ballplayers, the Blue Jays may have no choice but to move their games to their spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., or some other available ballpark in the United States.)

Nats-Park-Dugout-Roof-sidebar.jpgWhy hold “Spring Training 2.0” in hometowns instead of Florida and Arizona? For one, it’ll be more than warm enough to practice outdoors in every MLB city come mid-June, so no need to head south like everyone does in mid-February. For another, it would allow all players to relocate to the city they’ll call home the entire season instead of moving into apartments and hotels for three weeks in one state and then moving into another apartment, hotel or house when the regular season begins. It limits travel and exposure. And it makes it easier for players and their families to stay closer together, should they choose to do that.

What’s the downside? Well, from a baseball standpoint, MLB stadiums are not designed for spring training. The Nationals have six practice fields at their complex in West Palm Beach, plus a bullpen with 10 mounds, an artificial turf agility field and a big batting cage that can accommodate a bunch of hitters at the same time. At Nationals Park, there’s only one field, two bullpens, two batting cages.

Logistically, it would be harder to run drills for perhaps as many as 50 players in D.C. than it would be in West Palm Beach. The likely solution? Workouts would have to be spread throughout the day, maybe with pitchers reporting in the mornings while position players come in the afternoon.

All of this, however, is contingent on the District of Columbia lifting its Stay-at-Home order or making an exception for the Nationals in the next few weeks.

As things currently stand, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stay-at-home order runs through June 8. MLB’s plan for a second round of spring training would have players reporting only a few days after that.

Gatherings of more than 10 people not from the same household are still prohibited in the District. So that’s another restriction that would need to be lifted, or at least eased enough to allow for groups of players to work out as one.

In her most recent extension of the stay-at-home order (issued May 13), Bowser said several criteria must be met before phased reopening can begin. Among them: a 14-day decrease in community spread of the coronavirus, a transmission rate of fewer than 1.0 for three days, less than 80 percent health care capacity over a seven-day period, and contact tracing attempt of new cases within one day and of close contacts within two days.

If D.C. doesn’t meet those requirements in time, Bowser would need to make a formal exemption for the Nationals to hold workouts and eventually games in the city.

There is some hopeful news on that front, though. On Monday, the governors of New York, California and Texas each made public statements supporting the return of professional sports to their states (with no fans in attendance) in time for MLB’s proposed season. Given how hard-hit New York and California have been, not to mention the significant restrictions those states have implemented, Monday’s news can only be viewed as a positive development for those who want a 2020 MLB season.

Watch now to see if leaders from other jurisdictions make similar announcements in the coming days. These things tend to happen in waves. Once one leader makes a proclamation, others often follow in short order, no longer worried about being viewed as too aggressive.

If more governors and mayors say professional sports can be played in their states and cities, Bowser may have little choice but to join the chorus.

Which means it’s quite possible the Nationals will be holding “Spring Training 2.0” on South Capitol Street three or four weeks from now.

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