Or at least you will have to trust Rizzo that it did.
“Once you get through the protocol and through the gate and take your temperature and everything,” Rizzo, the Washington Nationals’ general manager, said Thursday morning from an otherwise empty media room at the club’s spring training facility, “… and once you’re on the field and you smell the grass and the pop of the gloves and stuff like that, yeah, there’s some normalcy to it, and it feels good. It’s great to see the guys again.”
Rizzo had just watched the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers work out for the first time in 2021. But unlike in most years, as a product of the coronavirus pandemic, there were no fans lining the walkways between each field. Reporters glimpsed the action through a live video feed shot by a public relations staffer. The players are split into three clubhouses, masks are required inside, and every other day players, coaches and staffers will be tested for the coronavirus.
The health and safety protocols are similar to what led MLB through a four-month season in the summer and fall. There is, in turn, some comfort in having done this before. Yet the virus is still present in all aspects of the Nationals’ operation. Each of their pitchers and catchers passed through intake screening and was cleared to start camp. All of them quarantined in their hotel rooms or apartments until the received a negative test result.
So Thursday was like the “first day of school,” Rizzo noted, except for lurking danger. That has been burned in the back of their minds.
“We’re much more organized and ready to take on the complications that are involved in these protocols,” Rizzo said, comparing now with when play restarted in July. “I feel more confident. I know the players feel more confident in the protocols that we have. We bend over backward to keep them safe, and any slight type of positive or inconclusive result throws us into keep-the-players-safe mode.”
There were, of course, the usual spring story lines Thursday. Rizzo again backed Carter Kieboom as the team’s everyday third baseman. Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ 36-year-old ace, sprained his ankle while conditioning two weeks ago and will ease into his routines. Stephen Strasburg will throw a bullpen session Friday after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery in August. He will ease in, too, having thrown just five innings in 2020 before going to the long-term injured list.
The club has to firm up its bullpen and bench in the coming weeks. Manager Dave Martinez mentioned a possible cabbage toss — not a hand-to-hand pass — to keep players light and adhere to social distancing rules. Washington will look at Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth for its open fifth starter spot. How’s that for normalcy?
Rizzo on Kieboom: “Again, 44 big league games, sporadically over two seasons, we’re not going to make any drastic evaluations there. We have seen the kid play since his junior year of high school. Everybody who laid eyes on him had him as a big-time prospect and a guy who’s going to help us a lot.”
Martinez on Strasburg: “He’s going to get ready to start the season just like normal. Normal spring training for him. He looks good. He looks great, actually. And he feels good, which is the most important thing.”
And Martinez on Scherzer: “Hopefully this is something that won’t hold him back too much. But we’re early in the spring. We’re going to slow him down a little bit. His arm feels great. He’s in really good shape. As we all know, this is the last year on his contract, so he’s going to push himself. But we need to be careful right now.”
It will be almost a week before players, coaches and staffers get wearable devices to help with contact tracing and social distancing. That’s a new element in MLB’s protocols and one it hopes will limit the threat of coronavirus outbreaks in the clubhouse. The Nationals will have their first full-squad workout Tuesday. Their opening exhibition is against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., on Feb. 28. Then the regular season begins April 1, when they host the New York Mets, making the meantime devoted to solidifying the roster, evaluating top prospects and staying healthy.
That started with intake screening in recent days. And when Ryan Zimmerman went through the process, he wasn’t yet initiated to playing through a pandemic. Zimmerman, a 36-year-old first baseman, opted out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns. He watched the Nationals finish 26-34 from his couch in Northern Virginia and itched to rejoin the only professional team he has been on. Then he signed a one-year, $1 million deal in January, maintaining the bridge between the Nationals’ past and future.
Now, though, he had to submit a test for clearance into the facility. There was no normalcy to be found.
“What is that?” Martinez recalled Zimmerman asking once a tube was given to him.
“Welcome back. Get used to it,” Martinez told Zimmerman. “You’ll be doing it every other day.”