You really had to see Citi Field on Friday to believe it.
I’m not talking about the creative use of space that transformed a major league ballpark into a makeshift spring training facility. The cones set up in the outfield grass for agility drills. The spray-painted batter’s box on the warning track. The gym that now inhabits the Honda clubhouse area.
Everyone but the on-field players wearing masks as standard issue along with their Mets gear.
That was all highly unusual, sure. The new normal. Every day seems to bend our perception of reality, and this was no different in that respect.
But stepping inside Citi Field again for the first time since Sept. 29 — the date of Dom Smith’s walk-off homer that beat the Braves in the Mets’ season finale — allowed me to believe in the possibility of baseball. A little bit. Put it this way, more than I did before.
For nearly four months, with the sport shut down by COVID-19 and embarrassing itself on a daily basis with its tone-deaf labor negotiations, we viewed baseball only in the most abstract of terms, through the lens of a global pandemic. Its existence was relegated to historical footage on TV or nostalgic tributes in the newspaper.
Playing baseball again felt like an unattainable goal. Plus, we had so many other real-life things to worry about — dodging the coronavirus, stressing over job security, doing our part to combat racial injustice amid nationwide protests.
The 2020 season was a rapidly fading dream. And with the coronavirus readjusting its expanding grip on the country, our skepticism continued to grow unchecked as well.
Until Friday, that is, when the Mets turned a much-discussed blueprint into a loosely staged dress rehearsal for the 60-game regular season.
There was batting practice. Throwing sessions. Conditioning drills. The usual spring training fare.
Manager Luis Rojas described Jacob deGrom as being in “midseason form,” which sounds about right, considering the Mets were scheduled to play Game No. 87 on Friday night against the Padres.
“As soon as I got on the field, I felt normal,” Wilson Ramos said. “I felt like baseball is back, we’re back.”
Technically, yes. Baby steps. And with testing every other day, the coronavirus threat also will be a constant presence around the ballpark before it follows the players and staffers home at night.
From a media perspective, the Mets were diligent in their screening protocols, running the reporters through symptoms checks, taking temperatures and spreading people out sufficiently in the press box.
The team also issued magnets to place on the restroom doors, now designated as single-person occupancy, to indicate someone was inside. Not something I would have thought of, so credit to the Mets for going the extra mile on social distancing.
From my observations, the measures were being followed, both on the field and upstairs. I didn’t spot any high-fives or spitting. The players seemed to keep plenty of space between them during the drills. But that covers only what we could see happening. Citi Field has acres of indoor workout areas that surround the clubhouses. That all has to be policed, too.
“The No. 1 thing is the health of everyone here and that we’re fulfilling the protocols,” Rojas said. “So the guys are able to go out on the field and we can focus on our baseball.”
That’s a message Rojas had to deliver in segments, over videoconferencing, with players stationed in different rooms. A manager standing in the middle of the clubhouse, addressing his team, is a thing of the past — another casualty of the virus.
“We are connecting virtually right now,” Rojas said matter-of-factly.
I’m not as concerned with that part. As long as the players fully grasp the consequences of their behavior, especially after leaving the park, maybe baseball has a fighting chance of getting to Opening Day.
But there still are circumstances way beyond the Mets’ control, in states currently under siege from COVID-19. Those wildfires could leave MLB with no choice, either because of more outbreaks or increased travel restrictions.
On Friday, however, baseball was being played again at Citi Field. In staggered groups, at least six feet apart, with sunflower seeds replaced by hand sanitizer.
It was a day unlike any other in Mets history, yet rather mundane to watch.
We couldn’t tell if this was the launch of a successful experiment or just another day closer to an abrupt end. For now, after the modest baseline of simply returning to Citi Field, I’m willing to at least consider the first one.