COVID-19 makes ‘togetherness’ a challenge for Nationals Spring Training season

A baseball team’s success comes from more than just talent and tactics.

The longest path to the most exclusive postseason (162 games to qualify for 10 playoff spots, or 33% of MLB) demands that a team be more than the sum of its parts. And that means a clubhouse that’s together.

Do the 25-30 players have to be best friends? No, but they need to be able to co-exist and thrive together in the same workspace on a daily basis for eight-plus months.

One of the reasons why the Nationals were able to climb out of their 19-31 crater two years ago — and continue coming back from the precipice of elimination multiple times in October — was the strength of their clubhouse.

Developing a cooperative clubhouse isn’t the easiest thing to do. If it was, everybody would do it. But imagine trying to get a team together and in the same heartbeat in a COVID-19 world.

The pandemic means social distancing and that makes for less togetherness in a room that has 40-plus players during Spring Training.

“We have three different clubhouses, because of protocol we have to keep them separated during the course of the day. Especially the pitchers, we broke them in three groups,” Manager Davey Martinez said. “We try to put some of the young guys with the veteran guys. But with that being said, we’ve got to get our mainstays ready. It’s hard because they can’t sit around. Everything’s kind of moving along and they can’t congregate. It’s tough.”

That means that in a game where repetition builds rhythm and consistency, there’s even more repeating.

“I often have the same meetings five or six times now, but I gotta relay the same message to each group,” Martinez said. “In that sense it’s been a struggle not getting them all together. I do the best I can to communicate the message day in and day out. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day where you have to repeat yourself six or seven times, but I want to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Spring Training is usually a fantastic learning experience for prospects and minor leaguers in camp. The lessons they take from the field are one thing, while the chance to be a sponge in the clubhouse also helps their development into Major League players.

This year, pitchers like 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge won’t have as much of an opportunity to interact with the veterans.

“It’s a little bit different. I’m sure it would be nice to have breakfast and talk to these guys. Obviously we have to do it from a distance and kind of watch from a distance,” Rutledge said. “There’s certain guys in my throwing group that I get to watch, so those are opportunities that I have to learn from them.”

Even with the limitations, veterans like Ryan Zimmerman have done their best to impart wisdom on the younger guys.

“It always means more when it comes from a player compared to a coach,” Zimmerman said. “Davey has always said it’s our clubhouse, it’s our job to kind of teach these guys how to behave while you’re here, but I think more importantly off the field.”

Max Scherzer seems to be the type of person who relishes in the Major League Baseball clubhouse environment — focused on the purpose at hand, but also engaging with his teammates. One can only imagine how he’s dealing with a world where he has to keep his distance.

“We had to deal with it last year. Now we know we have some experience as what it’s like knowing what we’ve got to be able to do, and just finding different ways to be able to still engage in that team camaraderie kind of stuff,” Scherzer said. “Surely there will be challenges, but hopefully some of these protocols we can continue to navigate and find ways to build team camaraderie and follow the rules at the same time. Hopefully it gets better throughout the year.”

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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