Usually, these days are sleepy, routine formalities, the adult equivalent of returning to school after a long summer vacation. Players trickle into Port St. Lucie on the east coast of Florida, and into Tampa on the west, they show off their new rides, they get reacquainted with old teammates, introduce themselves to new ones.
One of the early hallmarks of spring training is the manager’s valedictory. Every one of these is always drafted off the same script, of course, Cactus League or Grapefruit League, in places that just sound like spring: Bradenton and Lakeland, Sarasota and Surprise, Goodyear and Glendale.
These are always Stengel-meets-Saban, Leyland-meets-Leahy affairs: managers as football coaches, delivering their messages before a roomful of rapt ballplayers, all of them eager to break a baseball sweat for the first time.
All of that comprises the tapestry of spring training — every team, every year, going back not just one century but into the one before that, a rite and a ritual as much a part of the sporting calendar as anything and unique in one regard: there’s no scoreboard attached, no winners, no losers. Just the annual arrival of baseball, in the teeth of winter, always feels like a win, for everyone.
We have little idea of what the jumble of spring training 2.0 is, because we are all learning that on the fly, every day, every hour. This time, the players arrive with masks covering their faces, and the tone of the greetings is far different, because the tenor of every conversation is different now.
There is nothing resembling the assembly-line physicals they zip through in the spring, checkups that 99 percent of the time reveal nothing out of the ordinary; now they undergo testing, saliva work and bloodwork, and their sport wrestles with what will be considered collateral damage — 5 percent testing positive for the coronavirus? 15? 20? — and what will be considered too high a number to continue?
The managers? They will be more Fauci than Rockne, delivering their messages in careful socially responsible waves, two and three and four of them, as many as necessary, as baseball teams figure out the tricky mathematics of allowing 50 to 60 players to properly prepare for baseball seasons on a single diamond when there are usually six and seven within easy access.
And nobody is much looking forward to a good, summer sweat, not when we are still being taught what each of those droplets might convey.
We are all making this up as we go along, even as the sport follows its rules and its protocols listed densely in a book that feels longer than “The Power Broker.”
“I know it going to be challenging,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday, his first public comments since he and the rest of the club were forced to abandon Tampa almost four months ago and wait out the first wave of danger.
“Things will happen every day that’ll make it more challenging than it would be normally. Our job is to get ready, trying to get things in order, get a plan together, how we want to attack this three weeks-ish buildup to the season.”
Boone’s words echoed Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s the other day, when he spoke of the odd duality of focusing on the job he was hired for while also understanding it has become, at least for now, a far different job description.
“We are trying to lay a foundation to winning a championship,” Boone said. “My job, my focus the next few days is laying that foundation and get our guys in the best possible position to be successful.”
There is, unquestionably, a modicum of comfort in hearing words like these, reminders that if all goes well there will be baseball games that count in a couple of weeks, opportunities to debate pitching changes and lineups again — even if those discussions will come via Zoom or cell phone, rather than around a water cooler or inside a tap room.
But there is also the “Jaws” music playing quietly in the background, too. It is a part of our daily soundtrack now, each time we refresh our newsfeed and see numbers from distant precincts painting graffiti all over our best-laid hopes. And so it will be as spring training 2.0 proceeds: a daily drill, a daily check, looking to see who’s playing that day and who’s not, sifting through hard data, wondering if baseball will make it to July 23, wondering how deep beyond that it might proceed unchecked.
“The reason we are here,” Boone the skipper said, “doesn’t change.”
But Boone the father of four, Boone the heart-surgery survivor, he surely knows that the circumstances surely have.