Protests in the streets and an invisible plague in the air. In a lot of ways, the world is as unfamiliar as we’ve ever known.
So it was comforting to walk inside Tropicana Field on Friday morning and recognize a truth both reassuring and universal:
Spring training is still boring.
Dress it up however you wish. Put it indoors, put it in masks, put it in the first week of July. Still boring. Still a bunch of guys striving to look busy and impressive while rushing to get to their tee time.
I know it’s supposed to be poetic, and dreamy-eyed writers can explain how it is a metaphor for the reawakening of our youth or some equally deep reflection. To me, it means the regular season is around the corner and that’s more than enough.
So, yeah, I got a little misty-eyed in the press box Friday morning, but that was probably from the veil of sanitizer Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin was spraying all around me.
To be fair, this version of spring training at least looks a little different from the rest. The Rays broke it down to four time slots of eight players each to keep social distancing at a premium. Pitchers worked out of the visitor’s clubhouse and on the left side of the field, while the hitters were in the home clubhouse and stayed mostly in right field. It was the baseball equivalent of West Side Story.
“It’s just odd, but we’re living in odd times right now,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said during a Zoom call in the middle of the workout. “We’re going to do everything we can to follow the guidelines and keep the players and their families and our staff healthy. But there’s no doubt when we’re seeing everybody coming in different waves, and the work on the field is very individualized, that it’s not what we’re accustomed to in the game of baseball, especially in a spring training setting.”
Turns out, much of the work actually took place underneath the grandstands, where the Rays have three different mounds for pitchers and cages for hitters. Which meant the bulk of the drills visible from the press box consisted of players running around cones in every conceivable manner and direction.
Hitters do a bare minimum of conditioning drills. Pitchers do less.
Hunter Renfroe and Yoshi Tsutsugo had the hardest-hit balls during batting practice. So if pitchers are required to throw about 60 mph from behind a screen, keep an eye on those two.
Otherwise, it was about as you expected. Ji-Man Choi seemed to be having the most fun, and Kevin Kiermaier showed up 20 minutes before his scheduled workout time and stuck around even after all the other hitters had left.
More than a dozen Rays have been working out regularly at Tropicana Field for the past month, so there weren’t a lot of kinks to be worked out. It’ll mostly be a question of getting the starting pitchers accustomed to throwing 80-100 pitches and getting the relievers used to throwing hard on back-to-back days.
The most interesting question is whether players will be able to stick to the voluminous list of rules and protocols. There were a few fist bumps on Friday, and a handful of elbow taps. But, for the most part, players kept their distance from one another, standing in widely spaced circles as if they were being introduced for the first time.
“As far as the abnormality of it, there’s really no way to describe it,‘' pitcher Charlie Morton said. “It’s so different.”
The team got together for a Zoom call on Thursday, but they probably won’t all be gathered in the same room until the regular season begins in three weeks. That means the normal clubhouse dynamics will take some time to develop, although there are only a handful of players who weren’t around for at least part of the 2019 season.
“You can make the argument that this is going to be as unique a situation as any have been in, myself included,” Cash said. “We’re going to have to lean on each other, and when you depend on each other, that chemistry kind of builds automatically.”
Until now, America’s longest drought of Major League Baseball had been the 257 days between games during the 1994-95 work stoppage. By the time we get regular-season games later this month, we will have eclipsed that mark by roughly a week.
Yes, this is a new version of spring training.
But I’m already waiting for opening day.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.