O's embrace changes during 'pretty weird' times
Upon arriving at Camden Yards on Friday morning for the Orioles' first Summer Camp workout, left-hander Wade LeBlanc embarked on a day unlike any other in his 11-year career. On the surface, the routine resembled that of one typical of early spring: LeBlanc stretched, played catch, threw a bullpen session, did conditioning drills and wound down with arm-strengthening exercises, exiting the park with the satisfaction of having completed a full day's work.
The particulars, though, could not help striking LeBlanc as bizarre. Before entering the ballpark, LeBlanc’s temperature was checked. He reported to the visitor's clubhouse, where the active lockers were spaced out considerably. Stretching was done in a manner compliant with social distancing. He wore a mask indoors, washed his hands before and after the bullpen session, utilizing newly installed stations to do so. LeBlanc hardly interacted with any position players, who weren’t due at the park until later in the afternoon. Afterward, he recounted the experience on a Zoom call with reporters, video conferencing alone from a newly constructed flex space.
“It’s pretty weird to say the least,” LeBlanc said.
Consider weird the new normal. Such was the sentiment after the Orioles completed their first workout of the COVID-19 era, returning to the field with health and safety precautions at the forefront. To a man, their first team workout since the coronavirus pandemic shut down Spring Training in mid-march was one they will never forget.
“This was definitely the most odd, random, weirdest thing I’ve ever encountered on the baseball field,” said first baseman Chris Davis. “I think it will start to feel more normal the longer we are under these guidelines, and my hope is we develop some sort of routine.”
Davis, like LeBlanc, acknowledged the understanding among players that for baseball to return in these unprecedented times, such logistical gymnastics are required. And they are willingly complying, with a roster of mostly younger, less-established players that has shown as much buy-in to this point as any other club. Accountability has been stressed both in conversations among players and with manager Brandon Hyde, who stressed how eager so many of his players have been to return to the field.
Said LeBlanc: “It was about getting back to normal for the most part, as normal as possible. As baseball players, we want to get out there and we want to play baseball. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”
On the field, Hyde said, things already started to feel normal after a while. It was in the coach’s room, the clubhouse, in the interpersonal moments that they felt different. At one point in the afternoon, the image was striking of Hyde and EVP/GM Mike Elias comparing notes of a Tom Eshelman live batting practice session in the stands from opposite sides of a partition, using the stadium tunnel as a natural social-distancing tool. Elias held a radar gun in one hand. Both he and Hyde wore masks.
Hyde and his staff also scheduled players to arrive and work in staggered groups as to reduce potential contact. Pitchers arrive in the morning, position players in the afternoon, with some overflow for pitchers scheduled to throw to batters.
“It’s kind of a long day for the catchers, to be honest with you,” Hyde said.
After workouts, pitchers returned to the visitor's clubhouse and position players the home clubhouse, teammates separated by design. Active lockers were spaced out in both clubhouses, and couches removed from the home side. Like so many restaurants these days, the team’s food rooms provided to-go meals only, having similarly removed their tables.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about staying safe an really taking care of ourselves for the duration of summer training and the season,” Hyde said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about being smart on and off the field and to follow all the guidelines, do everything that is asked. So far today, we’ve done all those things and feel good about it going forward.”
And then there was the actual baseball. Facing several of his teammates in a sim game, Renato Nunez crushed at least three homers over the course of the afternoon. Tommy Milone resumed his bid for a rotation job by whiffing Davis at one point. Chance Sisco, Rio Ruiz and Richie Martin were among others spotted on the field for the Orioles, who are preparing to open a 60-game season either July 23 or 24.
Outside of safety, Hyde’s message is one of optimism. Expectations go out the window in a 60-game sample, theoretically giving way for randomness to rule. That screams opportunity for a rebuilding team like the Orioles, even given their hyper-competitive schedule as an American League East team. Hyde said they’re embracing the weirdness and the possibilities.
“It is definitely a sprint, no doubt about it. We’re going to be in first place in late July. We don’t have a lot of experience in our clubhouse and to be right in it with 60 games to go is going to be a lot of fun.”