Summer camp is the name baseball has settled upon for the rebooted training portion of the 2020 season.
The semantics are so inviting.
It makes you think of arts and crafts, swimming in the lake, nature walks,and roasting marshmallows by the campfire. Maybe a scary story about how the coronavirus once haunted the Phillies’ spring-training facility down in Clearwater, Fla. can even be told late at night before bed time.
This, of course, is not that kind of summer camp. This is baseball business at its most unusual and it started for the Phillies at two very different parks this week. Summer camp officially opens Friday morning, but on one side of Broad Street, the players most of you know and that the Phillies will be counting upon most have already begun workouts at Citizens Bank Park.
They are preparing for a 60-game sprint that they hope leads to the team’s first postseason appearance since 2011. On the other side of Broad Street, a bunch of guys who will likely spend the majority of the summer practicing at triple-A Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park for games they may never play will bake in the searing sun at FDR Park.
For the next few weeks leading into the season opener later this month, they will practice hitting, running, fielding, and social distancing, the latest and most important tool needed to play baseball during a nationwide pandemic.
As mentioned before in this space, it is difficult to get revved up about a season that has been delayed by both a deadly virus and the insidious greed displayed by both the owners and players as they failed to reach a negotiated financial agreement.
The level of play in this shortened season could be diminished for a variety of reasons. It will be a monumental task for the players to remain focused on their play when the guidelines for their health are so extensive.
“There is a big responsibility that falls on everyone when we leave the building, whether you are in your own city or down in Florida,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said during a Zoom call with reporters after his team’s workouts Thursday. “You have to be responsible and really quarantine yourself – only be around people you have been around. We are going to do everything we can to pull this off.”
Girardi fielded roughly 25 questions Thursday in a mass virtual video format that is now essential to our country’s business. Most of us did not know about or understand how to use Zoom when spring training was shut down after the Phillies played a March 12 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., and that is just a sliver of what has changed since then.
Predictably, the majority of questions directed at the manager were about preparing to play during a pandemic.
“We’ve had numerous conversations, and it has been about how if you make a mistake you jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family, you jeopardize your teammates and their families and our chances of winning,” Girardi said. “So, yes, that was spelled out and it has been spelled out at different times because, again, there’s a huge responsibility.”
Winning hardly seems like everything or the only thing as baseball prepares to restart, but it is the reason the Phillies replaced Gabe Kapler with Girardi after last season. It is also what Girardi did in all 10 of his seasons as manager of the New York Yankees and where his primary focus remains even in these most turbulent of times.
It’s easy to forget that the Phillies performed really well in their first spring training under Girardi. When the games stopped, they were 14-5, which was the best exhibition record in baseball. Just two weeks away from opening day, they seemed to have built some momentum.
“I think what has to be regained is the sharpness that the guys were playing with,” Girardi said.
“We were having contributions from a number of different people. We were playing good defense, we were running the bases well, we were throwing strikes. We have to get that all back because we have not been doing any of these things, so I don’t know if it has been lost, but it has been tucked away for 3½ months and we have to pull it out as quick as we can.”
So much has happened in those 3½ months. The reported number of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey that day was 29 and in Pennsylvania it was 22. Deaths in the United States from the virus had not yet reached 100. It’s sobering to think what the numbers now say, and it makes the return of baseball seem so meaningless.
But if they’re going to play, they might as well play to win. Girardi’s Phillies have also encountered some turbulence in the last 3½ months with the most distressing news being that reliever Seranthony Dominguez’s elbow injury resurfaced. His season, as it turned out, was already over when the Phillies were ordered to abandon spring training. He will have Tommy John surgery soon.
“That’s a big loss,” Girardi said. “Seranthony was a closer, an eighth-inning guy, and those guys aren’t easy to replace. It gives other people an opportunity to step up and we expect other players to do that.”
The Phillies, of course, were also recently hit hard by COVID-19. Seven players and five staff members tested positive late last month. It was revealed Thursday that closer Hector Neris, reliever Ranger Suarez, infielder Scott Kingery, and pitcher Tommy Hunter are all on the COVID list and will not be part of the early summer camp.