Eric Thames, only minutes removed from dropping the throw that sent the Nationals to an agonizing, 2-1 loss to the Marlins in the opener of Sunday’s doubleheader, was asked during his Zoom session with reporters how high the frustration level has become on the majors’ most disappointing team of 2020.
His answer, which grew more and more exasperated with each sentence, revealed a lot more than that.
“It’s very frustrating living life as it is now,” Thames said. “It’s not just on-the-field stuff, but off the field. You can’t do anything. You’re stuck in your room. You’re eating the same meals every day. Using your microwave more than ever. It’s just very, very frustrating. The natural energy’s not there. Yeah, your teammates pick you up. Your teammates are playing for each other. But the games, it’s a whole different vibe now. ...”
Thames paused to collect himself, sighed a few times and then wrapped up his diatribe.
“It’s definitely a grind. It’s a grind. That’s all I’m going to say. Holy cow. Oh, man.”
We’ve come to take for granted that sports can be played in the middle of a pandemic. Words like “protocols” and “bubble” roll off our tongues naturally at this point, and we don’t stop to consider what they actually mean to those who are in the middle of it all.
Truth is, this has been a lot tougher than we on the outside will ever be able to appreciate.
The Nationals wrapped up their final road trip of the season Sunday with their fifth game in 72 hours at Marlins Park. In between, they sat in their hotels. They weren’t allowed to go anywhere else, not even on the off-day that preceded this series.
And the Nats actually were among the most fortunate clubs in baseball. With their first scheduled road trip (to Toronto and Miami) postponed and their annual interleague rivalry series with the Orioles requiring only a 45-minute drive up and back to Baltimore each day, they wound up spending only 23 nights away from home in six different cities, all of them on the East Coast.
By all accounts, they encountered no serious issues along the way. Nobody tested positive for COVID-19 after Juan Soto’s presumed false positive result on opening day. Any games that were rescheduled were the result of issues involving the opposing team, not themselves.
Which doesn’t mean it made for an enjoyable experience.
“I don’t want to stay in another hotel for a while,” manager Davey Martinez said with a laugh. “It worked out. I give the boys a lot of credit for following our protocols about staying in hotel rooms. Just hanging out in our rooms, that’s all we wanted our guys to do. They did it, and we stayed healthy. They did a great job with that.”
They did it, but they did it just to get through a three-week summer training camp followed by a 60-game season. In baseball terms, that’s a blink of the eye. Even if it didn’t feel like it.
“I feel like we’re on Game, like, 220 right now,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I guess the physical grind is not there in the aspect of if you were playing over 162 games. But these 60 games that we’re going to play, it feels like we’re going to play over 200 with the protocols, with all the different rules and all that kind of stuff.”
Given all that, could these guys imagine having to do this over a full 162-game season?
“One hundred sixty-two like this is definitely going to be challenging,” Suzuki said. “I’m not going to say it can’t be done. Obviously, it can be done. It’s just one of those weird things that you have to adapt to and get used to. Hopefully, next year we can get back to normal and play in front of fans.”
We don’t know yet what the 2021 season will look like. Major League Baseball has announced a full, normal spring training schedule and a full, 162-game regular season schedule. But can anyone say definitively right now they’ll be able to do it? And whether fans, media members and everyone else who attends games in person will be able to attend the way they did pre-pandemic?
It’s too soon to know for sure. Besides, this bizarre season isn’t over just yet. The Nationals’ road portion of 2020 is now complete. They’ve still got eight more home games to play in the next seven days, hoping to stave off official elimination as long as possible and hoping to stay sane all the way through the finish line.
“We know a playoff chance is pretty bleak right now, but still we have a week left,” Thames said. “We’ve just got to finish strong. It wasn’t a desirable year for anybody, in terms of as a team collectively. All we can do is just finish strong.”