Music drowned out the silence normally filled by fans’ cheers. Once drills began, the masks came off. Here, and in complexes across Florida and Arizona, as the nation marked the loss of 500,000 people to a seemingly endless pandemic, 21 Major League Baseball teams gathered to give normalcy a try.
This time last year, these camps opened with hardheaded optimism, only to be shuttered abruptly when the pandemic settled in and forced a shortened season. This year, camps are opening with better-informed hardheaded optimism, with new precautions and more measured expectations of what may come.
But beneath all the masks, audible in every manager and general manager’s emphasis on the “fluidity” of the situation, there is an undeniable sense of hope — that maybe, just maybe, by the time this season is over, the rest of the world will look almost normal, too.
“I don’t want to get too political or weird on you, but there does seem to be some true hope in our country right now,” Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak told reporters from Jupiter, Fla., on Monday morning.
“Whether that’s because vaccines are rolling out, I think we’re all desperate to get back to what we call normal. From a baseball standpoint, my fingers are crossed that, at some point this year, that’s what we’re talking about.”
Monday, at least, baseball business hummed along, undeterred by masks or protocols.
Mozeliak and his team showcased their new star, Nolan Arenado, for the first time. The Padres made their 14-year extension with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. official in a news conference before their first full-squad workout.
Lindor made his on-field debut for New York and debuted blue hair for the occasion, even though no fans were there to see it. Soon after, he was enduring another spring staple: fielding questions from the New York media about whether he will sign an extension like Tatis’s.
“It’s too early,” Lindor said. He mentioned he hadn’t had much time to talk with the team yet. The 27-year-old said he is still getting to know the organization, and he reiterated his hope that any negotiations won’t bleed into the regular season.
For now, he told reporters he just hopes everyone “masks up” so there can be fans in the stands sooner than later. The few tickets the Mets had to offer the public for spring training games at 20 percent capacity sold out in less than 10 minutes.
MLB and its owners wanted to delay the season a month or so. They wanted to wait until March to start this process, to allow covid-19 case numbers in Florida and Arizona to fall to safer levels. The players wanted to begin, to play a full season and be compensated accordingly. Their union rejected a proposal for a 154-game season that would have started later.
Those tensions between the league and union, on display as the sides negotiated the start of this season, will loom in the background of everything that happens between now and next winter, when the collective bargaining agreement expires.
The disdain was on display almost immediately Monday. Lindor, a member of the MLBPA’s executive committee, shared his concerns about analytics and their influence on game management, as well as his frustrations with the league’s revenue-sharing setup.
“The game is heading in the wrong direction. You’re rewarding teams for losing. Team loses 100 games and they get money at the end of the year because the bigger-market teams, the teams that decided to spend money, spent too much money and won,” said Lindor, who was traded from one such smaller market in Cleveland. “We want it to be fair for everybody. We want the players to make money. We want the owners to make money.”
Many of the non-pandemic issues swirling around MLB during the past few months have coalesced in the Mets, from transitioning from a stingy owner to a free-spending one in Steve Cohen, to their capitalizing on a small-market team’s willingness to jettison a franchise player, to a leaguewide reckoning with sexual harassment that has included multiple reports of trouble in Queens.
Mets camp offered a subtle reminder of the issue when it was acting general manager Zack Scott, instead of the GM the team named this offseason, Jared Porter, who conducted the usual Day One conversation with reporters. The Mets fired Porter after an ESPN report detailing lewd text messages he sent to female reporters.
Scott didn’t field questions about his predecessor’s behavior, but he was pelted with questions about a Lindor extension — a question he largely dodged by saying it takes both sides to come to a deal like that, so only time will tell.
“I’ve been a part of these conversations before we’ve been able to do it. Some of them, we were successful in being able to extend the players. Sometimes, we weren’t able to find that common ground,” said Scott, who also acknowledged that outfielder Michael Conforto will be a free agent after this season and that the Mets “want to see if something is there that makes sense for both sides.”
Scott, team president Sandy Alderson and others addressed the Mets in a Zoom meeting earlier Monday — the kind of meeting that would normally take place in a crowded clubhouse instead of on a screen. Scott said the message included that “our expectation is to win a World Series.” Many teams received similar messages from leadership Monday. Covid-19 precautions were an omnipresent reality at Mets camp, but they were hardly a source of focus.
Lindor, for example, said learning where the fields were and when stretching started were the most difficult adjustments he had to make. He also acknowledged that a post-covid-19 baseball experience — with fans pressing down from all directions and reporters huddled at lockers — could bring new challenges of its own for a player trading the relative quiet of Cleveland for the chaos of the New York media market.
“There’s not much difference [yet]. There’s no one in the clubhouse. All you guys are here,” Lindor told reporters, gesturing at his screen. “So I haven’t really seen that big-market experience, except my Instagram and Twitter and social media pages have grown. Other than that, everything has been the same.”