And yet the Nationals still haven’t traveled for a regular season road game.
“It’s going to be a tough task. We know that,” Manager Dave Martinez said of an upcoming trip to face the New York Mets in Queens. “But we got to follow these protocols. That’s the best we can do.”
On Sunday afternoon, after their series finale with the Baltimore Orioles, the Nationals will take a few buses to Union Station to board a chartered Amtrak train headed north. Players, coaches and staff will have assigned seats to ensure social distancing. They will arrive in New York by the evening, then begin maybe the hardest part of a trying summer.
The Nationals will be the last team to leave the comforts of home since the regular season began July 23. Two others — the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals — experienced coronavirus outbreaks during road trips. The Marlins’ health issues originated in Atlanta. The Cardinals had coaches and staff test positive ahead of a series in Milwaukee. The spike in cases forced MLB to issue a new round of health and safety guidelines, including stricter mask rules, hard restrictions on where players can go in their home cities and the addition of a compliance officer to police behavior on the road.
Washington, a veteran team, is confident in its ability to remain cautious and safe. But an airborne virus is hard to escape, evidenced by the nearly 5 million confirmed cases in the United States. Even if players stay in their hotel rooms, wear masks while in communal hotel spaces and only go back and forth between there and the ballpark, there could be cracks in the foundation. And it’s concerning how hard they are to identify.
“I think that’s the reason why a lot of us chose to play this year because we trust each other in the clubhouse,” shortstop Trea Turner said of the New York trip. “I think we have a lot of faith in one another to do the right thing and think about the guy next to you and not just yourself.”
How the Nationals have avoided travel so far, with their first 12 games in Washington, shows the dysfunction of this season. Their first scheduled road trip to Toronto? The Blue Jays were kicked out of Canada for 2020 and moved to Buffalo for the season but played their first two “home games” in Washington. The Nationals’ second scheduled road trip to Miami? After the Marlins’ outbreak, the players voted against traveling to Florida, a coronavirus hot spot, before MLB postponed the series and later divided it into three future doubleheaders.
So now the Nationals head to New York as pandemic travel novices. Under MLB’s updated protocols, a player will have to ask the team compliance officer for permission to leave the hotel. Martinez joked that he is going to station General Manager Mike Rizzo in the lobby. On a more serious note, Martinez noted that MLB security will be stationed around the hotel, monitoring who comes and goes and why.
MLB is on high alert after an internal investigation found a group of Marlins had gone to a bar in Atlanta. No matter that a report from the Athletic later detailed other causes for the outbreak. Since MLB and the players’ union agreed to protocols in late June, a glaring hole was an undefined honor system. By not playing in a bubble, as the NBA and NHL are, MLB had to trust its players, coaches and staff to follow a loose code of conduct away from club facilities.
The code has grown more rigid since the season began, but it can only go so far in mitigating risk and poor judgment.
“We got to do our part,” said Kendrick, who admitted he did not take the virus as seriously as he should have this spring. “And if that means not going somewhere, it’s not going to kill us at the end of the day.”
Martinez has teamed with Rizzo, the team’s medical staff and Rob McDonald, the team’s head of travel, to plan out five days in New York. The Nationals will arrive Sunday, play four games and head out Thursday evening. Then they will have three day trips to Baltimore next weekend. Then they will fly to Atlanta to play the Braves, which will be the first flights for everyone since traveling to Washington in late June or early July.
The details are constantly evolving. Martinez hopes to hold team meetings in hotel conference rooms in New York, an effort to limit crowding in tighter spaces at Citi Field. The manager mentioned Saturday that local restaurants will cater lunch and dinner for the Nationals at the ballpark. Martinez said there will be room-service breakfast at the hotel. Players, coaches and staff will be confined to their rooms, passing time with Netflix, phone calls or video games.
What’s missed, aside from any sense of security, is the routine of waking up in a road city, having the spots you hit each season, then exploring a bit before taking late batting practice as the visiting team. Now the agenda is to stay healthy and help others do the same.
“We got to be smart,” Martinez said. “If we’re going to pull this off and we’re going to be safe, the best thing to do is stay in the hotel and chill.”
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