Sure, SNY’s announcers got to do spring training games on site in Florida this month, but the experience still was far from normal, given the restrictions on access to players and fields.
That was what made one serendipitous moment stand out for Ron Darling.
"My favorite part of spring training this year – and it was only one as far as baseball is concerned – was I went to get a Starbucks, and Francisco Lindor was there," Darling said.
"We sat and drank our coffee together for 20 minutes and just talked. That was by far the greatest moment in spring training for me."
So it has gone and will continue to go for SNY’s Mets booth of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Darling.
COVID-19 rules are cramping their styles – like everyone else’s in sports media – because they are unable to build relationships with new players and/or pick up reportorial tidbits.
And at least for the start of this season, like last season, they will call both home and away games from Citi Field, the latter with no players or fans in the building with them.
All of that is difficult, but what helps make it work is their bond with one another. This will be their 16th season together, one short of the 17 for the original Mets trio of Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson.
"I am impressed that we’re all still able to sit up and take nourishment and are still somewhat sane," Cohen joked on Tuesday in a group video interview with Newsday.
"It’s not just that we three have stayed together, but we’ve had the same producer for all these years, Gregg Picker, and he is the unsung hero of this group."
Darling also credited the original director, Bill Webb, who died in 2017, for setting the standard for the telecast.
"Every time we open up a season, I do look at us and say, one, we’re getting older, and two, this is amazing that we’re still doing this," Darling said. "More importantly, I love this job as much now as I did when I first started. So that’s shocking, too."
Speaking of age, Darling turned 60 in August, so all three are in their 60s now. That adds a degree of difficulty to staying current. Darling and Hernandez last played in the majors more than a quarter-century ago.
"Sometimes you think about it, and certainly we could be grandfathers to some of these young, young, young players," Darling said. "That’s a little shocking. I certainly think it’s of the utmost importance to stay as relevant to what’s going on now as ever. I think our job is tougher now than it ever was before."
Hernandez, 67, said he does not worry much about that, seeing himself as a time traveler with baseball stories to tell, much like his old colleague Kiner was.
"I get some pushback from my boss about not being contemporary enough," Hernandez said, "but I feel it’s important, too, to maintain a sense of baseball history going back, the players that maybe these young kids don’t know or haven’t heard of them.
"Ronnie’s very much on the ball and Gary’s very much on the ball. I’m a little bit lazy when it comes to that, so I’ll be the historian, or at least attempt to be."
There is no precedent for what has gone on in 2020 and now 2021.
Hernandez said working off a monitor was not difficult for him, even though "games with no one in front of us in a dark stadium when they’re on the road was very bizarre, like looking into a void or a black hole."
But he knows it is a logistical challenge for play-by-play people. Cohen, 62, has adapted as best he can, but this year will bring a new complication: West Coast games that end in the wee hours of the morning Flushing time.
"That’s going to be very strange," Cohen said. "I’ve never had that experience before."
SNY marked its 15th anniversary on March 16, and from the start it has branded itself as the cable channel with the broadest commitment to covering New York-area sports.
That has taken many forms, from news and debate shows to digital programming such as a recent reunion for the 20th anniversary of the movie "61*."
But from the start, the Mets were the channel’s centerpiece, and its Mets announcers its most visible faces.
"I made the move from radio because I wanted to get in on the ground floor of something that was going to be special," Cohen said. "I don’t think I could have asked for a better situation than the one the three of us fell into.
"I think it’s almost beyond my wildest dreams as to what has been accomplished on this network over the last 15 years."
The announcers are not the only source of stability. Executive producer Curt Gowdy Jr. has been in his position since Day One, and Steve Raab has been president since 2007.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the powers that be," Darling said. "We’re a different kind of broadcast and we’re sometimes out there, and they’ve allowed us to do our thing. They’ve trusted us to ride the line but not go over the line, or not go over the line too much.
"We’re kind of like an Apollo flight. We kind of jump in the capsule, we go up in the air and we splash down six months later . . . They’ve allowed us to grow to where occasionally we’re hard-hitting, journalistic baseball coverage and other times we’re ‘The Larry Sanders Show.’"
Said Hernandez, "It’s hard for me to get out of my baseball player skin. I played 17 years [in the majors], and I’m pushing 16 years in the booth. It’s almost [as long as] my entire career as a player.
"It’s hard for me to put my arms around it and fully fathom what it means to have this kind of longevity. But it’s something I’m just really proud of."