Sure, there were obvious signs of the difference between this camp and all previous ones. Staffers wore masks. Players tried to keep their distance from each other whenever possible. And, of course, there were no fans or reporters in attendance.
All the same, there was an undeniable sense of normalcy Thursday morning when the Nationals opened spring training with their first official pitchers and catchers workout of 2021.
Everyone involved knows things still aren’t normal. But after getting a taste of baseball during a pandemic last summer, there’s admittedly a comfort level now with all the protocols. And for the Nats, reason to think it’s still possible to have some fun under the sun.
“I do feel, after going through what we did last year ... I’m just kind of like: ‘Hey, you know what? This is it,’ ” manager Davey Martinez said from West Palm Beach, Fla., during his first Zoom session of the spring with reporters. “I’m going to get back to who I am. Let’s have some fun. Be cautious and be safe. Yet understand that this is our livelihood and we’re going to do the best we can to fulfill what we need to.”
Martinez emphasized fun and camaraderie during his first three spring trainings as manager. He’s not about to de-emphasize it now.
To wit: The “Cabbage Race” that became such a hit in previous years can still be held, with a few modifications.
“We might not be able to pass the cabbage hand-to-hand, but we can have a cabbage toss,” Martinez said. “Thinking about that right now. We’ll do some different things. We gotta have some fun.”
Very little about the 2020 season, once it finally got underway in late July, was fun for the Nationals. At the time, brand-new protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were foremost on everyone’s minds. One positive test had the potential to create a clubhouse outbreak and postpone a week or more of ballgames.
Though the threat of such things still exists, and will continue to exist until enough folks are vaccinated and the world at large sees coronavirus case numbers go down, it feels more manageable this time.
“I know I feel much more confident about what I’m doing and how we’re handling things, because we have some time now under our belt that we’ve dealt with this,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Last year, spring training 2.0, there was a lot thrown at staff, players, coaches, front office personnel. I thought we handled it very, very well. I think with that experience under our belt, with the better knowledge I think that we have now ... we’re going to follow the science and stay based on that and hopefully keep these guys in a consistent, safe place. So once they get through the gate, they can worry about baseball. That’s our goal.”
The Nationals already faced a daunting challenge last year when they reported for camp, trying to summon up the same motivation they had before winning the franchise’s first World Series title only 3 1/2 months earlier. By the time they gathered again in Washington in July to prepare for a 60-game season with unprecedented restrictions and protocols, they could’ve been excused for having even more trouble finding the drive necessary to perform well on the field.
That dynamic should be different this year. The Nats aren’t defending champs anymore - even if some will say the Dodgers’ 2020 title doesn’t carry the same weight given the circumstances - and they’ve got a roster loaded with veterans who know they aren’t going to have many more opportunities to play deep into October.
The long trek begins now. And for those who have gathered in West Palm Beach, that in itself is reason for excitement.
“It’s a motivated group. It’s a professional group,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got a coaching staff that’s high energy and upbeat. They’re not going to let anybody sit on their laurels or bask in the disappointment of last year. Every spring training is great because you start a new season and it’s something that will be no different this year. We’re going to start anew. We’ve got a lot of new faces, we’ve got a lot of new energy and I can’t wait to kick this thing off.”