Opinion: MLB spring training looks different in a pandemic, with tents, outdoor weight rooms. But it’s still baseball.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – There were no fans waiting for autographs outside the Giants' spring training ballpark Wednesday at Scottsdale Stadium.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was meeting players for the first time, acknowledging the challenge of trying to identify them while they were wearing masks.

The Cardinals' complex in Jupiter, Florida, was a sea of tents, where players were required to eat outside and with the weight room transported outdoors.

Angels manager Joe Maddon didn’t conduct his traditional first meeting with pitchers and catchers and said guest instructors would not be permitted to attend their camp this year.

It might have been the traditional first day of spring training, but there was nothing traditional about this opening day, not with the health and safety protocols during a pandemic.

Padres pitcher Yu Darvish headed into the team's spring training facility Wednesday in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo: Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres, Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s still exciting for everybody down here,” Cardinals president John Mozeliak said on a Zoom call, with no reporters permitted in the complex. “But we all realize it’s different. … Health and safety is foremost on everybody’s minds, so we’re making sure we follow those protocols, making sure that our players and staff feel comfortable in the environment they’re in, that we can get through this.

“Ultimately, there’s two big tests we have to pass: One is can we avoid having an outbreak in our camp; two, we have to prepare for a season and making sure it’s a roster we’re excited about and believe in and can be competitive.”

Team officials addressed the players when they arrived for their first workouts, reminding them of the strict protocols and warning that any violations could result in fines and suspensions.

This means no one is permitted to dine inside a restaurant all spring, no matter how fabulous the steakhouses are in Scottsdale and Tampa, and only outdoors after March 1. If you want to eat, go curbside or fast food. Bowling aficionado Mookie Betts of the Dodgers and everyone else can't step into a bowling alley. Movie enthusiasts like White Sox starter Lucas Giolito can’t duck into a theater. No fitness centers. Thankfully, golf is allowed.

“You can imagine getting all these rules and regulations a week ago,” Mozeliak said. “We’re all drinking from a fire hose to sort of understand and making sure we’re implanting it.”

The easy resolution would be for every player to be vaccinated before opening day, but there are no current proposals for MLB players to be given shots before the rest of the public.

“I’ve heard nothing on vaccinations,” Mozeliak said. “My fingers are crossed that before we get to St. Louis for opening day we have an opportunity for that. But I certainly understand that collectively you’re dealing with a pretty healthy group of young people.

"And when you’re looking at what’s happening around the country, there’s probably people that are more deserving of that opportunity than this group. But clearly, if you were vaccinated, it would ease up a lot of the protocols that we have.”

Considering as many as 2,250 players will be embarking to Florida and Arizona, can everyone have the discipline to avoid all temptation? Where stuffing your face with In-N-Out burgers is OK, but having a T-bone steak or lobster is forbidden?

“I think there’s always a concern,” said Phillies manager Joe Girardi in Clearwater, Florida. “I think as soon as you say there isn’t, you let your guard down. So I think we always have to keep our guard up.

“It’s incumbent on the staff, the players and everyone involved to be really responsible. I mean, that’s what we have to do, and we’ll continue to harp on that. But I think us going through it last year gives us a better example of what to expect. … We will continue to remind them to be diligent in their efforts, staying in their little bubble.”

Players found out spring training clubhouses were different when they arrived. Instead of being packed into one clubhouse, the lockers were spaced out, with the minor league clubhouses also being used. There was spacing on the field, too, with players in small workout groups.

“Today was kind of strange because usually when you throw a bullpen at a normal spring training, you’ll have six or seven guys throwing at once," Girardi said. "You walk behind the mounds. You look at every guy. Today, we had three guys throwing at once.”

But pandemic or not, some opening day of spring training traditions were alive and well. There were clubs revealing offseason player surgeries. The announcement of players arriving late because of visa problems. And, yes, some who’ll be late because they’re being quarantined for testing positive during their COVID-19 intakes.

The most heartbreaking news was in the Twins' camp, where manager Rocco Baldelli announced that bench coach Mike Bell would miss all of spring training after having surgery two weeks ago for kidney cancer.

Yet as different as it was for pitchers and catchers Wednesday – the position players arrived Wednesday and must quarantine for five days – there was at least a sense of normality.

For the first time since March 12, when baseball was shut down, spring training was back. Fans are prohibited from roaming around complexes, where they can watch workouts, but they will be permitted into ballparks once the games start Feb. 27, with about 20% limited capacity.

“I’m just excited to be back playing baseball again,” Diamondbacks veteran starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner said. “I love the game. I love playing baseball. I love to get back. It’s not quite normal, but we’re closer to it and on the path to it.”

Perhaps one day, maybe even by the end of the season, baseball will look like it always has, with protocols over, ballparks filled and normalcy prevailing.

“Hopefully, as this vaccine continues to roll out,’’ said Giants catcher Buster Posey, who opted out last season, “we’ll all get to experience the game like we’re used to.’’

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