WASHINGTON — A baseball game was played here Saturday night, Nationals-Phillies on South Capitol Street, and almost every moment of it betrayed what we know and believe about the game, on levels both literal and visceral.
Max Scherzer was on the mound for Washington, and goodness, did the Phillies blitz one of the greatest pitchers of all time: Seven runs in the first two innings, including a pair of three-run homers.
The first was hit by Didi Gregorius, who wore a mask on his face to protect himself from COVID-19 as he has a kidney disorder that makes him higher risk.
The second was hit by Bryce Harper, who visited Nationals Park nine times last year and was booed lustily every time, his penance for fleeing Washington for a $330 million contract in Philly.
On this night, you could hear the thwack when his home run ball struck an advertising tarp, covering seats unoccupied by fans, and his jog around the bases was accompanied not by jeers but virtually no sound at all.
The maniacally competitive Scherzer? Nonplussed, he accepted the replacement baseballs from home plate umpire Larry Vanover and got in his work almost stoically.
And then you remember: This was merely an exhibition game, no different than fake baseball played in Clearwater or West Palm Beach, even though this was a 97-degree night in a big league park in mid-July.
No, this was a dress rehearsal for our pandemic pastime, a 60-game Major League Baseball season slated to start here Thursday night, when the defending champion Nationals play host to the New York Yankees, with nary a fan in the stands.
Working around the novel coronavirus will be like nothing the sport has ever seen. Saturday night, the participants really started to grasp what that means.
“All of us are wondering what it’s going to be like: Game 3, Game 4 … Game 20 without fans in the stands,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said afterward. “It felt all right.
“Everything feels a little bit different but here’s the thing – everyone learns how to adapt. And it starts to become normal in a sense. It starts to feel a little bit normal. We’ll get more and more used to it.”
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A more cynical soul might argue that the sights and sounds of Saturday are nothing anyone would want to accept.
The reminders were constant and even a little heartbreaking, at times.
The night began with a video tribute and moment of silence to honor Rep. John Lewis, whose passing Friday might have lent a sense of public mourning to Saturday’s game. Instead, the flags lowered to half-staff and the thoughtful video the Nationals played were only for the 100-plus players and personnel on hand.
As the final moments before game time approached, the umpires emerged from their tunnel and gathered around home plate, waiting for managers who would not be showing up.
In 2020, there is no exchange of the lineup cards, as they are now delivered in a contactless fashion, like an online food order that magically lands on your doorstep.
With no ground rules to discuss or managers to banter with at home plate, the four umpires surrounded the dish, shifting awkwardly but staying dutifully in their formation.
Later, as Scherzer backs up a throw home on a sacrifice fly, a young man clad in khaki pants and wearing medical gloves is, seemingly, backing him up, too. Turns out it’s the “bat boy,” or in this case the person assigned to pick up equipment so players don’t. He may want to wait until the ball is no longer in play but hey, it’s “Summer Camp” for him, too.
Later, by force of habit, the Nationals threw the ball around the infield after an out, a minor violation of the best practices MLB urges teams to adopt during games. Third baseman Asdrubal Cabrera casually tossed the dirty ball toward his dugout, where it rolled at the feet of bench coach Chip Hale.
Had the ball not been considered toxic, and spectators been in the stands, Hale might have peered over his shoulder and flipped it to a young fan. Instead, he settled the ball with his feet like a midfielder and booted it toward a glove-wearing Nationals employee.
The fewer hands on the ball, the better.
Meanwhile, in one section of the priciest, premium seats behind home plate, a Nationals player clad in his uniform sits watching the game. Another section over, a Phillie does the same, like a couple of kids lingering at the Little League field after their respective games have finished.
Spread out over six sections of seats watching the game are 15 players, club officials or training staffers – social distance, indeed.
As the Phillies continue pummeling the Nationals, the home team gets a dose of significant good news: Victor Robles has shown up in the home dugout.
Hey, it’s just baseball – sometimes a fresh minor-league call-up shows up in the middle of the game.
Yet Robles has been quarantining in D.C. for 14 days after he was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Nowadays, it’s not the emergency reliever showing up mid-game but rather your starting center fielder, finally deemed safe to be around after his exposure to a deadly virus.
Like all MLB teams, the Nationals are piping in fan noise that both provides a dull roar along with artificial shouts of excitement when a ball’s put in play. If you forget about this for a second, your eyes may trick you into thinking the noise is coming from an enormous, industrial-strength fan down the first base line, charged with keeping cool the socially-distanced bench players banished from the dugout and instead gathered under a series of EZ-Ups.
No such fan was visible next to the Phillies’ EZ-Ups down the third base line, but hey, how else are teams to establish home-field advantage?
Eventually, the Phillies close out a 7-2 victory, but there is no slapping of hands out near the mound. Instead, a masked coach beckons them toward the dugout, where a few air high fives ensue but all move with dispatch, a bus awaiting, after all.
When the season starts for real, there will more to savor. Yet survival will remain the watchword.
“You just have to accept it,” says Scherzer. “It seems like every day there’s a challenge. If this is the way it’s gonna be, it’s the way it’s gonna be.
“This is 2020 baseball. You just have to keep a smile on your face and embrace it.”