Reds approach camp with a cautious 'urgency'

July 3rd, 2020

CINCINNATI -- Reds hitters took batting practice. Pitchers threw in the bullpen, while others took grounders or fly balls. It was an otherwise regular first workout on Friday at Great American Ball Park.

Except in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a form of "regular" that players and coaches haven’t experienced previously. Coaches wore face masks, and work groups were kept smaller than usual and staggered to keep people distant.

“Inside the clubhouse, it’s different, significantly different than what we’re used to,” Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. “Once you get out on the field, we have the freedom to more or less do our job. The more time you can spend outside, the more regular things will feel. Personally, I’m going to try to set it up that I can spend as much time outside.”

The pre-workout team meeting in the morning was not held in the clubhouse but via Zoom with everybody stationed at their homes. Of the 57 in the player pool, 22 Reds were at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio, which lies 25 miles away from Cincinnati, for their workouts.

Of course, there was not a fan in sight at either location since the ballparks remain closed to the public.

“It does not feel normal. I wish it did,” Reds manager David Bell said. “In a lot of ways, we feel prepared, for sure. But you’re kind of going into the great unknown. There’s some excitement to that. There’s some anxiety about it.

“We’re very confident with where we are, but I don’t know if that feeling will go away all year, so we have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

After a more than 3 1/2-month shutdown of Major League Baseball, players have three weeks to get ready for Opening Day, which will be held either July 23 or 24. Time is short, but Bell wasn’t looking to rush his players' preparation.

“Yeah, it is important to lay our eyes on them,” Bell said. “But at the same time, we want guys to ease into it and not try to show too much or anything like that. These guys are also professionals, and we’ve had enough communication to have a pretty good idea of where they are. … We have time to make adjustments and still have everyone ready on time for Opening Day.”

Votto believes that he and his teammates can adjust to the quicker timetable to be ready.

“As far as preparation for Opening Day in late July, I feel it’s important to think of this as Spring Training, but almost treat it like we’re halfway through,” Votto said. “It’s really important to have some urgency at this point without panicking too much. It’s going to come quick. Because it’s almost entirely intrasquad games, it’s come quicker than I think we realize. It’s important that we don’t get caught off guard. I don’t think we will. Guys are ready and motivated.”

Strict health and safety protocols are in place at the ballpark, but players are free to go where they want while away during their downtime. Around the league, some players posted pictures of themselves out and about. According to MLB figures released on Friday, 38 tests (31 players, seven staff) were positive for COVID-19 out of 3,185 samples collected -- a rate of 1.2 percent.

“I’m definitely worried about that,” Reds center fielder Nick Senzel said. “A ton of professional baseball players, when we have free time, sometimes you don’t think about what you’re doing. Guys are going to have to be disciplined. We as a team will have to be disciplined. I think this is a collective effort around the league to make sure everybody is doing their part and keeping everyone safe and healthy.”

A few players on other clubs have chosen not to play this season for health or personal reasons, although all Reds players intend to play. Votto never considered not playing.

“It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of autopilot in baseball,” Votto said. “You’re trying to conserve as much energy to save it for competition. So a lot of things, things that in the past we wouldn’t have paid much attention to, we have to concentrate on. It’s for our teammates. It’s for the coaching staff. It’s for the front office. And, most importantly, for the community in general. Those are adjustments that we’re going to have to police ourselves.”

Despite not getting the full 162-game regular-season marathon, Votto was very excited for the idea of a 60-game sprint after spending the time staying in shape at home in Toronto.

“I feel refreshed as a professional. I haven’t felt this way in years. I’m very excited -- whether it was 60 games, half a season or the full season. I was lobbying for 162 games in 60 days for full pay," Votto said in jest, "but those are my preferences. Sixty games is totally fine with me. I think people at home are excited."