NEW YORK — Jacob deGrom spent the past two seasons separating himself from almost everyone out there.
This was something entirely different, though.
As the New York Mets opened a most unusual summer camp Friday, the back-to-back Cy Young Award winner ran sprints by himself in shallow right field and then grabbed his personal bag of baseballs to throw off a bullpen mound.
No hugs or handshakes, and little good-natured ribbing with teammates close by ... because there weren’t many.
Home run champ Pete Alonso, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, wore a bandanna on his forehead and a mask over his mouth at first base. Most players kept a safe distance even while simply walking across the diamond at Citi Field, adapted from home ballpark to spring training site as the Mets prepare for opening day in three weeks.
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“It’s hard right now to be here,” catcher Wilson Ramos said, thinking of his wife and children in Florida. "But at the same time, I’m very happy to be here doing what we love to do."
“As soon as I got onto the field, I felt like baseball is back. We are back. I feel normal today," he said. "Except the distance we have from teammates.”
The last time the Mets got together for a formal workout was nearly four months ago in Port St. Lucie, Florida, before exhibition games were halted March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After a long hiatus, New York is now headquarters as the team gets ready for a shortened season of 60 games beginning July 23 or 24. With virus spikes in Florida and Arizona, all 30 clubs plan to hold summer training in their home ballparks.
The Mets scheduled three staggered practices Friday — morning, afternoon and night — to keep workout groups smaller and make social distancing easier on the first day of what rookie manager Luis Rojas called a "fluid camp."
After going through medical screening earlier in the day, several players and staffers wore protective masks on the field — not the catcher’s kind, either.
Music played softly over the stadium sound system as hitters took their cuts during batting practice.
“Once we hit the field, then it was almost like camp,” Rojas said on a video call. “We were maintaining our distances, but once they started playing catch, throwing the ball around, and BP that we saw, just excited to see the ball coming off the bat. It felt pretty normal to us.”
Mini cones spaced well apart marked sections of grass for separated stretching and calisthenics. Air horns blew at different intervals, a sound more familiar at a football practice.
Players used stationary bikes and other cardio equipment in a “gym” set up behind the right-field fence. Additional turf slopes and plates for pitchers were placed on either side of the right- centre wall. A makeshift infield was pieced together in the outfield for defensive drills.
Roped-off hallways and concourses, with arrows and distance markings on the floor, pointed reporters toward the press box, where dispensers of hand sanitizer were fastened to the walls.
Inside, the Mets utilized multiple training rooms and clubhouses, where lockers were separated.
“Everything that we can do in order to keep the guys distanced from each other,” Rojas said. “The No. 1 thing is the health of everyone here.”
Rojas said players were in different rooms and locations when he addressed the team on screen.
“It’s become part of the new normality, to hop on a Zoom call, hop on a virtual call or a text,” he said. “And we’re connecting that way.”
Yoenis Céspedes participated in the evening workout, which didn't last long outdoors — perhaps because of the thunderstorms in the area. Rojas said he thinks Céspedes has been sprinting and testing his mended feet. The slugger missed last season and most of 2018 with injuries but said in February he expected to be ready to play this year. “I can’t wait to see Céspedes myself,” Rojas said.
New reliever Dellin Betances threw a bullpen. The 6-foot-8 righty, a four-time All-Star with the crosstown Yankees, made only one big league appearance last year because of shoulder, lat and Achilles tendon injuries.
“I watched from the angle behind the catcher and I mean, you see that monster on the mound. I can see why the strikeout ratio is so high with him," Rojas said. “He looked really good today. He felt really good. And then afterward I saw him at the gym and he was very pumped up about today.”
CALL TO ARMS
Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia and deGrom were among the pitchers who also threw bullpens. “It was great to see Jake mixing his repertoire. I mean, he looked like he was almost in midseason form,” Rojas said.
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Mike Fitzpatrick, The Associated Press