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The Braves are back but baseball is very different

Credit: AJC

Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the "new normal" and how the team will take necessary precautions to stay safe as season starts amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

Credit: AJC

As the new guy in town, when starting pitcher Cole Hamels showed up at Truist Park Friday for the start of the Braves Camp COVID, he was even more disoriented than most.

Add in the two temperature checks before he even reached the clubhouse door – and where exactly is that door, he wondered – and understand any vague unease Hamels had when reporting to his “new normal.”

“We were going through all these protocols before you get out of the parking lot, getting scanned in every 15 feet. That’s just not something I’ve ever done,” he told the media through the now tired miracle of video conferencing.

“You normally have that sort of hop and skip to your step when you get to a spring training environment and here, you’re getting double checked and you don’t know where you are or what you have to do. There is going to be some confusion because it’s so different than what you’re used to.”

So very, very different.

As different as a new, troubling twist to the daily injury report: Saturday, with the players' OK, the Braves announced that star first baseman Freddie Freeman, utilityman Pete Kozma and pitchers Will Smith and Touki Toussaint all tested positive for COVID-19. Friday, Braves manager Brian Snitker said, "We're trying to figure this thing out on the fly. We do have a plan, we'll adjust. These guys are really good at adjusting and adapting." His words were put to the test immediately.

As different as adding this odd chore to the plate of Ed Mangan, the Braves longtime ace groundskeeper: There he was Friday morning struggling to set up a portable hand sanitizer station on the field, just beyond the dugout steps. Performing modern art with a mower is so much easier.

As different as Snitker reduced to reuniting with his new outfielder Marcell Ozuna with an awkward elbow bump rather than a hearty bearhug. “Everyone understands, it’s not just me being weird. We all have to do our part,” Snitker said.

So, it has begun, the unnatural alliance between baseball and the needs for social distancing and scrupulous hygiene.

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On Friday, the Third of July, the Braves were originally scheduled to be 87 games into a season, and playing a weekend series against Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons and the rest of the Los Angeles Angels. Now, Trout, with his wife expecting, is expressing doubts about rejoining his team. And the Braves are just getting back to trying to train as a team in preparation for an abbreviated 60-game season that presumably begins in three short weeks.

How long has it been since they all were last together in Florida, before the coronavirus scattered them? Well, Braves reliever Luke Jackson stopped shaving when the remainder of spring training was scrapped (March 12). And he showed up Friday looking like he was about a day away from penning a manifesto.

Braves pitcher Luke Jackson is sporting a healthy beard.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Braves pitcher Luke Jackson is sporting a healthy beard. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The best that can be said about a different and difficult version of baseball was said by one of the game’s lifers who’s leading the way here. “I woke up the other day and finally felt like I had a purpose,” Snitker said.

Spring training has morphed into a bizarre summer camp, one without the bunk beds, archery or crafts of any sort.

All sense of time has been warped as teams all around baseball strike up training at their home parks. There will be no competition for positions in this “camp”: “It’s pretty much how I felt when we left (in spring) - I kind of had a pretty good idea,” Snitker said when asked about the Braves makeup.

Nothing remotely usual met the Braves as they made this first gesture toward playing a season in the midst of a pandemic.

Yes, the players’ arrival was greeted by a gauntlet of high-tech thermometers, each man measured twice before being allowed into the building. Truly in these difficult times, only cool heads will prevail.

Baseball is the ultimate game of numbers, and now introducing one of the most important of those: 98.6.

“It’s going to happen,” Snitker said, when asked if players will fall victim to the temperature police, whether because of coronavirus symptoms or not. “There are going to be days when they turn guys away. It’s going to change the schedule a little bit. As we go, we know we’re going to have guys who miss a day or two, just work around it.”

Braves senior director of field operations Ed Mangan sets up a hand sanitizer station for players and coaches by the dugout.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Braves senior director of field operations Ed Mangan sets up a hand sanitizer station for players and coaches by the dugout. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In order to avoid overcrowding initially, players Friday reported in shifts, groups of 10 or less taking the field at any one time. So much grass, so few people. It would take from early morning to almost 6 p.m. before everyone could be cycled through. “A long day for the coaches,” Snitker said.

In the clubhouse, players were spaced out much more than usual, and have been instructed to wear masks while idling. They say it all went according to protocol Friday – and we’ll have to take their word. Media who since the beginning of time have been accustomed to reporting on the scene from the clubhouse are now confined to the press box, with all interviews done remotely and en masse. No players yet have complained about their absence.

From Day One of the restart, the Braves were challenged to take one of the most sociable of clubhouses in one of the most sociable of sports and install a sort of Downton Abbey kind of restraint.

Said Hamels: “Guys are excited to see each other but it’s a different way to be able to talk. That’s the thing with baseball, it’s very close. You’re constantly with each other, constantly talking, talking about the game. That’s the way we are so accustomed to what we do and how we do it. It’s going to be a serious adjustment for everybody.”

As shortstop Dansby Swanson put it, “Everything that came naturally is no longer accepted, I guess. It’s something you have to be cognizant of very early on, trying to keep your distance and wearing your masks.”

“At the end of the day I think people are embracing the fact that they’re not alone, everyone is in this together,” Swanson said. “We’re doing this for the betterment of everybody around us. It’s a good team bonding exercise, that’s for sure.”

A Braves player sprints  to first base.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
A Braves player sprints to first base. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

So, then, it was put to the skipper Friday, will it now be his job, in addition to all his other duties, to make sure his guys don’t hug or spit or fall back into any of the other boyish, joyful habits now banned? Must the manager also be the killjoy?

“Some of that stuff (like spitting and dugout tomfoolery) is going to happen,” Snitker said. “We can try all we want but when those guys go out there, they’re going to do some baseball things without realizing they’re doing it. ... There’s still going to be risks. You’re not going to be able to control the environment 100%. There is going to be some risk involved, but we’re going to do the best we can in a tough situation.”

There was a decided hurry-up aspect to Friday’s proceedings. By the first morning of the first day, prized young starters Mike Soroka and Max Fried already had thrown two innings worth of live batting practice. None of them have the leisure of a seven-week spring training to get up to opening day speed.

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Everything is condensed and contracted for these players, from the length of their training day to the overall span of their training period.

“It’s going to be a lot different just for the fact a lot of us are used to getting to the field early and staying late, getting in a ton of work, really taking advantage of what spring training is,” Hamels said. “I don’t know how well guys were able to train where they were at, but personally, if you look at us we’re probably not as strong as what we would look like in spring training. And you also have to understand we don’t have seven weeks to get stronger.”

Friday marked the beginning of baseball’s last shot to save a fraction of its season. It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be familiar. And it does not come without risk.

What says the manager who is approaching a 65th birthday, and as such flirts with membership in the coronavirus high-risk group?

“I kinda feel more safe in this environment right here than going to the grocery store to get a gallon of milk,” he said.

An encouraging sentiment for fans of baseball, if not for the shopping public.