Mets’ batting cage a silent reminder of baseball’s coronavirus reality: Sherman

Think of the batting cage during practice like the local tavern. It is the gathering place where everyone knows your name.

Coaches, front office personnel and players ring the protective barrier. The subjects range from elements of the game to who did what last night — and with whom and where. The players are often creating contests — who can hit the most homers this round? — and the air becomes filled with good-natured, yet low-blow ribbing to those lagging behind in the competition accompanied by the boasting of the leaders. Flexes — verbal and physical — are standard.

Rounds go by. New people join, others depart. A throng persists. The noise, the banter, the revelry. The song remains the same.

It passes the time. It bonds. It is a daily tradition from the outset of spring training to the final day of the World Series.

So as major league baseball officially dipped its toe back onto the fields, the batting cage stood out. For its desolation. For its lack of frivolity and camaraderie. The new is masked and isolated and business only.

The Mets began their first spring training 2.0 workout Friday at 9 a.m. Perhaps 30 coaches, players and other personnel were widely spaced on the terrain of Citi Field. When it came to the first round of on-field hitting, the only person behind the cage was hitting performance coordinator Ryan Ellis with a wrap around his nose and mouth. The pitcher (masked) threw from about 40 feet, the hitter (no mask) took rounds and the next in line to hit milled a safe distance away.

That was it.

On a morning filled with reminders of what is going to be endeavored to try to play Major League Baseball amid a pandemic, the batting cage offered stark imagery of just how much the familiar is about to be disjointed, disrupted or dissolved. Those involved are going to have to adhere to a new way, find ways to create unity despite enforced distance.

There is a 100-plus page guide created by MLB and sanctified by the Players Association designed to gather folks as safely as possible when COVID-19 cases are soaring in this country. It is a living document, expected to be amended with knowledge and new best practices. So there is much to learn still as we see if MLB can actually pull this off.

But this should also be considered the easy part. The first days should have the full attention and discipline of everyone involved. The ballpark comes with leadership reinforcing rules. It will be away from the park — everyone following their individual code — that creates the greatest challenge. And the ballpark will become more difficult also with greater numbers at one time, especially when games mean whole teams from different locales have to be in one place at one time.

This is the slow time. The learning of a new way.

Normally spring training is a coordinated ballet of multiple fields, scores of players and a variety of drills. All is timed and, if it works ideally, players after an allotted period move without hitch from one part of a large complex with multiple fields to another. Repeat, rinse. Day after day.

Stretching to indoor batting cage work to outfield cutoff drills is the Tinkers to Evers to Chance of February and March throughout Florida and Arizona. But aside from the teams from those two states all other organizations have fled to their homes because of the rising COVID-19 cases in Florida and Arizona.

That generally means one field now. So rather than everyone showing up at once to a clubhouse and field this is a different kind of training camp ballet. Day-long with different units coming at different times to limit interaction and crowding. For the Mets, catchers were out early Friday, with a group of pitchers working mainly away from them in the outfield and bullpens.

Near the third base dugout at Citi, the Mets created a bunting station. The batting cage was at home plate as usual. Plastic disks were arranged around the outfield to create stations for stretching and running. Behind each station was liquid sanitizer suspended on a pole. At the end of the first round of hitting, clubhouse attendants disinfected the baseballs (this is in the MLB guidelines).

Conversations were held at a distance. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen, for example, spoke with lieutenants Allard Baird and Omar Minaya independently, both from about 10-15 away, all wearing masks. It is not like there were prying ears nearby. Reporters were limited to the pressbox hundreds of feet away. No one was in the stands.

Spring training usually moves at a languid, quiet pace. But this was extreme in the volume — of people and noise. The planes would crackle familiarly beyond the outfield fence on occasion. Beyond that, though, the music was low, the mood subdued, the connection limited.

The new world of baseball began mainly amid the sound of silence.

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