Now factor in the novel coronavirus pandemic — otherwise known as reality — and there’s another wistful what-if. In the early stages of negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, July 4 was floated as a possible Opening Day. The most optimistic scenario was America’s pastime returning on America’s birthday. Then negotiations dragged. Then they dragged some more.
Then the talks turned into a public ping-pong match, ending with MLB imposing a season and the players’ union maintaining the right to file a grievance. July 4, in the end, became the second day of summer training, filled with mundane drills and the perfect weather for an 11 a.m. first pitch.
Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ ace and one of the union’s veteran leaders, had imagined it differently, too.
“I just wish we were playing baseball today, July Fourth,” Scherzer said. “I think that was possible. The fact that we weren’t, that was a failure on a lot of different levels. Other than that, I’m just happy to be back and that we are going to have our season.”
Across the past few months, as the owners and players battled, Scherzer’s frustration seeped onto his usually dormant Twitter account.
On May 27, he blasted out a statement saying the players should not have to accept a second pay cut, which the owners had pushed for once it was clear games would happen without fans. He ended it by suggesting MLB’s economic strategy would change if the owners’ earnings were public. On June 10, he built on that idea by tweeting: “Some owners have mentioned that owning a team isn’t very NET profitable. You know what other company isn’t very NET profitable? Amazon.”
And June 15, near the tail end of discussions, he went with: “[Commissioner] Rob Manfred and the owners are walking back on their word...AGAIN. The fans do not deserve this. So I’ll say it one more time, tell us when and where.”
“When and where” became the union’s catchphrase, challenging Manfred to mandate a season. Scherzer is not only the Nationals’ union representative, but he sits on the eight-player executive subcommittee. The 35-year-old is also one of two players on MLB’s rules committee. It is not a stretch to call him one of the most influential voices in labor talks.
That makes him well-versed on baseball’s return plan. He had a prime spot in negotiations about the sport’s coronavirus testing policy. He understands the benefits of saliva samples vs. nasal swabs. He is adjusting like everyone else, learning to slick his fingers with sweat instead of spit, wearing a mask whenever he is inside the team facility. And he knows this will take buy-in from all levels of the sport.
“The biggest thing I guess, in my mind, that this comes back to is preventing the spread,” Scherzer said. “You can’t prevent anyone from contracting the virus if they catch it away from the field. Our biggest concern is the spread of the virus and having it spread throughout a clubhouse.
“So when you factor in the testing and the fact that we have protocols and PPE in place to help, even if somebody were to contract it and it gets through the testing system, there is still an additional line of defense to prevent the spread. To me, that kind of alleviates a lot of fears.”
As Scherzer explained, the line of defense is a mix of detailed protocols and protective gear. Coaches and staff members are required to wear masks on the field. Players have the option, and closer Sean Doolittle wore one during most of an off-mound bullpen session Saturday. After pitchers and catchers finished a workout, they split into two directions. One group skipped down the dugout steps and into the home clubhouse. Another went down a tunnel leading to the visitors’ clubhouse.
The Nationals are expecting 58 players for training, though some are still awaiting intake test results. Manager Dave Martinez said Saturday that those who traveled from the Dominican Republic are not yet cleared and around 50 have started to participate. The club assigned them to different areas, using both clubhouses and an auxiliary locker room.
A key part of making baseball work during a pandemic is unwinding a list of ingrained habits. Another is taking each new development in stride.
Just about nothing is normal, save the sound of a fastball cracking into a catcher’s mitt. It took tense negotiations for even this step to happen. It will take an abundance of caution for the next steps to unfold. Scherzer recognized both points in a 15-minute interview Saturday. But at least publicly, he is not mixing frustration with his excitement to be back.
“You can’t cry about it,” Scherzer said of what led to the return. “Just go forward and meet every challenge that we can.”
Read more on baseball: