The stands were empty Monday morning at Citizens Bank Park as the grounds crew tended the dirt near home plate, preparing for another day of baseball in the heat of July.
If you suspended belief and closed your eyes — listening to the music that hummed through the speakers and the baseballs that popped mitts in the outfield — it might have felt for a moment like a typical summer day in a sleepy ballpark, hours before the first pitch.
But Monday, just like the previous three days of training camp as the Phillies attempt to gear up for a season amid a pandemic, felt anything but normal.
In Washington, Houston, and St. Louis, practices were canceled due to delays in testing results. In Atlanta, another player opted out of the season over concerns of the coronavirus. And in South Philadelphia, the star pitcher finished his self-quarantine and reported to a ballpark where players wore face masks, wiped their hands with sanitizer squirted by coaches, exercised on the stadium concourse, and ate meals by themselves at tables stationed in the highest-priced section of the ballpark.
Welcome to summer camp, a three-week socially distanced expedition that could decide if baseball will be able to begin a 60-game season later this month.
At spring training in Clearwater, Fla., the focus before the pandemic was centered on the competition: Who is going to be the fifth starter? Who would crack the bullpen? And how would the bench shake out? At summer camp, the focus during the pandemic has shifted: Who can stay healthy?
The Phillies are tested every other day for the coronavirus, fill out daily questionnaires, and have their temperatures checked throughout the day. Players are barred from camp if they test positive, come in contact with an infected person, show symptoms, or have a test that is missing or inconclusive. The Phillies have missed players in the first days of camp for all of those reasons.
“I think there’s a possibility that we could go through this the whole season,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “Because of the contact tracing. ‘A’ saw ‘B.’ ‘B saw ‘C.’ ‘C’ saw ‘D.’ Because of that, we could go through this on a number of occasions and then the players end up being OK but we have to be safe. We’re going to be dealing with this a lot.”
The players follow strict guidelines at the park, but they are on their own once they leave. They stay at their own residences as most of the players checked in last week to homes or apartments that had been rented in time for the original start of the season. Many players brought their families with them, bringing concerns that they could bring the virus home to their spouses or children. And also the thought that freedom away from the ballpark could bring the virus to the team.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “For sure, this season is going to look and feel different for the players. … Everybody, no matter what your role is in this industry, has an incentive to make these games go. That’s what we want. The players want to play. The teams want to have the games … you guys want to cover the games, the fans want to watch the games, there is a universal incentive to make this work and that’s, I think, cause for optimism. I can’t predict that every single person in the industry will be perfect throughout the year. That’s probably an unrealistic goal, but I do think that the incentives are aligned appropriately to get this thing off the ground.”
The nearly 60 players are spaced out at Citizens Bank Park between both clubhouses to maximize social distancing, and each player is given a specific time to report to the ballpark. They are allowed in the clubhouse for just 15 minutes to change into their uniform. Half of the team stays to train at Citizens Bank Park while the other half is shuttled across Broad Street to FDR Park.
There is no spitting, no water coolers, high-fives, or saunas. The weight room and training rooms are wiped down after each player finishes. The players eat their meals at the Diamond Club, which they enter by walking through the stands. The players don’t linger; they seem to come to the park, work out, and leave.
On Sunday, a trainer wiped the rail of the batting cage with a sanitized rag after a coach leaned against it to watch a hitter. Monday, first baseman Rhys Hoskins held out his hands after completing a fielding drill as assistant coach Bobby Meacham sprayed him with hand sanitizer. Later, when the team worked on relays from the outfield, shortstop Didi Gregorius and third baseman Jean Segura fielded throws while wearing face masks.
“Those are things we just have to do, we have to go about it the right way, and understand that [there] are things we can’t do right now,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “I think the air high-five is going to come back and be the coolest thing in baseball this year and be the coolest thing in sports. So all of our handshakes are going to be air high-fives and air slaps and things like that. It’s going to be different. We just have to transition the best we can and keep everyone safe to the best of our ability and transition to a new style of game to the best of our ability.”
At FDR Park, the Phillies practice at the team’s Urban Youth Academy, which opened in 2015 and is home to their inner-city youth baseball program. The players, most of whom have been pitchers in the first days, are assigned specific shuttles to board after dressing in their uniform at the ballpark. They wear masks for the short ride and leave empty rows between them.
The Phillies maintain the fields at FDR, which feature manicured grass and pitching mounds that were rebuilt just before camp started. But the two fields — named after Richie Ashburn — are part of a city park. In a way, the Phillies are training for a baseball season with the privacy of a men’s league team.
They practiced Saturday as families grilled their Fourth of July meals beyond the center-field fence and as the tennis courts a few hundred feet away were buzzing. Kids played soccer, a youth football team ran through drills, and the famous skate park — just across the street from the Phillies’ field — was packed.
Fans are locked out of Citizens Bank Park, but the Phillies cannot shut down FDR since it’s a public space. They installed some extra fencing and brought their own security guards, but the experience is as close as you can get to seeing spring training in Clearwater without having to leave South Philly.
“You noticed the fans, and especially being the Fourth of July, all the barbecues going, there are some smells that you’re very fond of on a day like this,” pitcher Cole Irvin said. “That was nice. I think today is a little different, but yeah, it’s not typical surroundings. But at the same time, this is a new normal that we’ve got to get used to.”