CHICAGO – Days like this are usually reserved for late March or early October, not at the beginning of July.
Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs were on the grass at Wrigley Field, taking part in a practice without fans at an empty ballpark. Usually this would happen when team would be arriving ahead of a home opening day or before the start of a playoff series.
Instead, it came on a hot day in the middle of summer, nearly three weeks before the team would take the field. Yet it still looked a wonderful as it has in the past for a slimmer Rizzo, who was happy to be back at the “Friendly Confines” for the team’s first “Summer Camp” workout.
“The ivy’s all grown in. We’re walking around with masks, which is going to take some getting used to going inside,” said Rizzo. “Once we’re on the field and we’re out there it’s amazing how fast you tune everything out and just Anthony Rizzo the baseball player when I’m between the lines.”
While the feel might ultimately feel the same, it’s certainly not for the Cubs, and the masks that Rizzo talks about are the biggest reason. The COVID-19 pandemic continues across America, and figures to be the biggest opponent for all teams between now and when the season ends.
The pandemic itself has also created a most unusual season, one in which just 60 regular season games will be played. It’s the lowest since the 1877 season and 102 short of the total that would be played in a normal year.
“It’s a 60-game sprint,” said Rizzo of this upcoming slate.
It leaves little room for error or major slump if a team hopes to make the playoffs, putting the pressure on first year manager David Ross and his players immediately.
“You want to push these guys to be ready as soon as possible and get the reps that they need in so they’re ready to compete at the highest level,” said Ross. “Thankfully, we’ve had a group that’s stayed ready and have been taking live batting practices, guys have been throwing live bullpens, have followed the protocols our coaches set out.”
Maybe that’s why Ross has already set a team scrimmage for Saturday in hopes to getting his team in game shape before the end of the month. Opening Day is July 23rd, and getting there healthy is the key, especially with a nearly four month layoff between spring and summer training.
“I’m gonna rely on the feedback from the players; they’ll tell me when they’re ready,” said Ross. “Our eyes will see when they’re ready. All of them look like they’re in phenomenal shape, the guys that I’ve seen already.
“We’re gonna try to walk that line as we go. It’s not something that we can map out and say ‘this is how we’re gonna run things.’ We’re gonna take it day-to-day.”
Each of them will count with the condensed 60-game season, where players like Ian Happ have to turn back their clock to remember a campaign such as this one.
“I’ve been relating it to a college season,” said the outfielder, who last played at the University of Cincinnati in 2015. “The 56-games you play in college is as close of an experience that I can relate to with this.
“I know how important every game was there, and I’ve said this in the last couple weeks; I think patience is going to be important, because every game really does matter so much.”
That’s was far from hyperbole on this most unusual practice day at the Friendly Confines in early July.