Spring training storylines: Holding camp in a pandemic

Would you believe we’ve reached the final countdown to spring training? That’s right, pitchers and catchers are holding their first official workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., tomorrow. So it’s time to count down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We conclude today with the unique challenges the team will face conducting a six-week camp during a pandemic ...

The last time the Nationals worked out as a team at their complex in West Palm Beach, a few precautions had been put in place to protect against the still-new coronavirus that had only recently reached the United States. It was March 12, and though players were now prohibited from coming into close contact with reporters and fans, they still played an exhibition game against the Yankees in front of a sellout crowd.

And even after Major League Baseball mandated an immediate halt to all spring training activities, players, coaches, executives and others who went their separate ways and returned home never seriously considered it would be another 11 months before they gathered again at that complex.

Or that when they did so, they’d still be under strict and comprehensive protocols to protect them from a pandemic that has now resulted in the deaths of more than 2.4 million people worldwide, more than 486,000 of those in the U.S. alone.

Suffice it to say, as much as we all wished - maybe even assumed - things would be back to normal by now, there will be nothing normal about spring training 2021.

Thumbnail image for Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-Sidebar.jpgNationals pitchers and catchers technically report today. Truth be told, everyone already was required to report days ago to complete a mandatory quarantine period before gathering with teammates at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Everyone will be required to wear masks when not on the fields. Social distancing will be encouraged whenever possible. Clubhouses will not be open to anyone who’s not a Tier 1 employee of the organization. Workouts will be closed to fans.

The Grapefruit League schedule has been altered to eliminate any long-distance travel. The Nats will play 24 games, all against the four other clubs that train within 45 minutes of West Palm Beach: the Astros, Cardinals, Marlins and Mets.

Even the tried-and-true rules of ballgames that typically are enforced in exhibition play will be relaxed. Innings can be called before three outs are recorded if someone’s pitch count gets too high. Games can be shortened to five or seven innings if both managers agree.

If you were skeptical of spring training stats before, you’ll really give them no credence this year.

How, then, do the Nationals prepare for the 2021 season under such unusual circumstances? By attempting to normalize whatever they still can.

The experience of last year’s abbreviated summer camp in D.C. and subsequent 60-game season gave everyone a taste of what baseball’s like during a pandemic. It won’t feel quite as foreign this time around.

Most important to players, they’ll get the full six weeks to get their bodies and their arms in shape for the regular season. No need to rush this year, and the sincere hope is that the glut of injuries that overcame teams last summer won’t be an issue in 2021.

Pitchers, who have been throwing on their own for the last month or so, will report to camp ready to climb the bullpen mounds, then face live hitters, then throw 30 pitches in their first starts, building all the way up to 100 by opening day.

Position players will be able to devote their usual amount of time to conditioning, defensive drills and batting practice. When the games start, they can build themselves up the way they usually would, playing three or four innings every other day to begin, then six or seven innings and ultimately the full nine on back-to-back days as camp wraps up.

Most everything on the field should feel normal. It’s once they step off the field that things will get weird again. That’s both at the complex, where movement and interaction with others will be restricted, and away from the park in the evenings, with gatherings strictly prohibited.

The idyllic spring training we all love to envision won’t be happening this year. It’s going to be all business, with very little fun thrown in to spice things up.

It’s hard to believe this remains the case 11 months since the Nationals last gathered in West Palm Beach. But as has been the case with so many other aspects of our lives we used to take for granted, we must accept we’re still not ready to return to normal just yet.

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