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The Spring Training that broke routine

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Heather Barry | @heatherbimages

There’s so much routine in baseball. Days start with clubhouse meetings and on-field stretching, scheduled and choreographed movements that serve as a prelude to games. At-bats start with ritual cleat digs and swipes, jousting the crown of the bat against the rubber corners of home plate. Home runs and other extra-base hits give teammates a chance to show off the micro-celebrations they’ve spent time rehearsing and getting just right for the moment.

There’s a familiarity that becomes so intimate it can almost turn into smothering as August comes around. The perpetual presence of a baseball game — any baseball game — being played at any point of the afternoon or evening from March through October eventually becomes a pleasant drone. Even if you don’t watch day-after-day, you know there’s baseball going on somewhere during the summer.

All of that starts with Spring Training. Once the dust of the winter and its offseason deck shuffling settles, the spring arrives like the splash screen your video game console of choice shows after powering on: It isn’t the main attraction, but the sight and sound of it let you know what you came for is right behind it.

That part of the 2020 routine was supposed to have ended this week. Thursday was supposed to have been Opening Day. Instead, facilities have been closed for two weeks, the season is indefinitely postponed, and players and fans alike are left in an uncertain lurch; the routine is disrupted.

No one knows when this season will start, how many games each team will play, or even what the playoffs might look like. As we sit here today, it’s not totally unlike the 1995 season, which began at the end of April after the dispute-embroiled ‘94 season concluded without a World Series. The ‘94 and ‘95 seasons lasted 115 and 144 games, respectively, for most teams. So it’s been 25 years since a season didn’t track with the typical 162 games, and we’re forced to reconcile with this kind of abbreviation for the first time in a generation.

For what it’s worth, this spring was incredibly kind to the Phillies. They had some injuries sprout up, as nearly every team will, but they had the best record (14-5) of any team and the second-best run differential (+29; Dodgers were +32). There were exciting prospect showcases with Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, breakthrough performances from guys like Rafael Marchan, and a cadre of veteran invitees who were all playing at a high level in pursuit of one of those invaluable Opening Day roster spots. Really, the only true downside to this spring was the fact that it was so hard to watch most of it.

Spring records and run differentials never count for anything once teams head home from the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. But something about the Phillies playing so well in this particular spring, only to have it dramatically and emphatically cut short, tenderizes the bruise just a bit more. There was real hope and optimism about this team’s designs on contention, real contention, for the first time in almost a decade, and now the very existence of a “regular” season almost seems uncertain if conditions don’t improve quickly enough.

This isn’t part of the routine.

A health crisis like the one we’re experiencing now certainly, rightfully, minimizes the importance of baseball on a national and global scale. So we’ll probably need reminding, when the time is right, about how well Bryce Harper was swinging the bat and how well Zack Wheeler was pitching down in Florida. It’s a little less important in this moment, but it’ll be very important again one day soon.

For now, we’ll work on new routines, ones that don’t involve baseball games being played in the background after we get home from work or on weekend afternoons when friends and neighbors swing by for a brew-n-’cue. We’ve got some things to learn about ourselves before we learn how the 2020 MLB season will go. But with good leadership and luck, within a few weeks or a couple of months, we’ll learn how to blend routines both old and new, and welcome this sport back into our daily lives.

Until then, stay safe and healthy. And wash your hands! We’ll go back to getting them scuffed with infield dirt and pine tar soon enough.