Quiet Fourth of July at Nationals Park offers another reminder of baseball’s difficult restart

THE WASHINGTON POST – If this season followed the original plan, Nationals Park would have been full on Saturday morning, the Fourth of July, for a World Series rematch between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. Dusty Baker would have been in the opposing dugout. The game would have wrapped in time to catch the Metro toward a mid-afternoon barbecue.

Now factor in the novel coronavirus pandemic – otherwise known as reality – and there’s another wistful what-if. In the early stages of negotiations between Major League Baseball (MLB) and players’ union, July 4 was floated as a possible Opening Day. The most optimistic scenario was America’s pastime returning on America’s birthday. Then negotiations dragged. Then they dragged some more.

Then the talks turned into a public ping pong match, ending with the league imposing a season and the players’ union maintaining the right to file a grievance. July 4, in the end, became the second day of summer training, filled with mundane drills and the perfect weather for an 11am first pitch.

Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ ace, one of the union’s veteran leaders, had imagined it differently, too.

“I just wish we were playing baseball today, July Fourth,” Scherzer said on Saturday. “I think that was possible. The fact that we weren’t, that was a failure on a lot of different levels. Other than that, I’m just happy to be back and that we are going to have our season.”

The Nationals continued summer camp workouts at Nationals Park on Saturday. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Across the past few months, as the owners and players battled, Scherzer’s frustration seeped onto his usually dormant Twitter account.

On May 27, he blasted out a statement saying the players should not have to accept a second pay cut, which the owners had pushed for once it was clear games would happen without fans. He ended it by suggesting that MLB’s economic strategy would change if owners’ earnings were public. On June 10, he built on that idea by tweeting, “Some owners have mentioned that owning a team isn’t very NET profitable. You know what other company isn’t very NET profitable? Amazon.”

And on July 15, near the tail end of discussions, he went with, “Rob Manfred and the owners are walking back on their word…AGAIN. The fans do not deserve this. So I’ll say it one more time, tell us when and where.”

“When and where” became the union’s catchphrase, challenging Commissioner Rob Manfred to mandate a season. Scherzer is not only the Nationals’ union representative, but sits on the eight-player executive subcommittee. The 35-year-old is also one of two players on the league’s rules committee. It is not a stretch to call him one of the most influential voices in labour talks.

Now, that makes him well-versed on baseball’s return plan. He had a prime spot in negotiations about the sport’s coronavirus testing policy. He understands the benefits of saliva samples versus nasal swabs. He is adjusting like everyone else, learning to slick his fingers with sweat instead of spit, wearing a mask whenever he is inside the team facility. And he knows this will take buy-in from all levels of the sport.

“The biggest thing I guess, in my mind, that this comes back to is preventing the spread,” Scherzer said. “You can’t prevent anyone from contracting the virus if they catch it away from the field. Our biggest concern is the spread of the virus, and having it spread throughout a clubhouse.

“So when you factor in the testing, and the fact that we have protocols and PPE in place to help, even if somebody were contract it and it gets through the testing system, there is still an additional line of defence to prevent the spread. To me, that kind of alleviates a lot of fears.”

As Scherzer explained, the line of defence is a mix of detailed protocols and protective gear. Coaches and staff members are required to wear masks on the field. Players have an option, and closer Sean Doolittle wore his during most of an off-mound bullpen session on Saturday. After pitchers and catchers finished a workout, they split into two directions.

One group skipped down the dugout steps and into the home clubhouse. Another went down a tunnel leading to the visitors clubhouse. The Nationals are currently expecting 58 players for training, though some are still awaiting intake test results. Manager Dave Martinez said on Saturday that those who travelled from the Dominican Republic are not yet cleared, and around 50 have started to participate. The club has assigned them to different areas, utilising those two spaces and an auxiliary locker room.

A key part of making baseball work during a pandemic is unwinding a list of ingrained habits. Another is taking each new development in stride.

Just about nothing is normal, save the sound of a fastball cracking into a catcher’s mitt. It took tense negotiations for even this step to happen. It will take an abundance of caution for the next steps to unfold. Scherzer recognised both points in a 15-minute interview on Saturday. But, at least publicly, he is not mixing frustration with his excitement to be back.

“You can’t cry about it,” Scherzer said of what led to the return. “Just go forward and meet every challenge that we can.”