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Not long ago, a Major League Baseball season seemed improbable, with owners and players fighting about how to restart in the middle of a pandemic. Now the fighting is over - at least publicly - and the majors are a mere 16 days away from playing ball if all goes well. Until then, teams are holding summer camps around the country. NPR's Tom Goldman visited the Seattle Mariners camp, where players are quickly sharpening their skills and adjusting to a slew of coronavirus safety measures.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: When baseball shut down in March, it interrupted the languid days of spring training. Picture fans lounging on blankets under the Florida and Arizona sun. Now, with the summer version of spring training, forget languid - no fans. And if you want to cover it as a reporter, you first have to get by people like Tyler King.
TYLER KING: In the past 72 hours, have you experienced any of the following symptoms - shortness of breath or difficulty breathing?
King works for a company the Seattle Mariners contracted to do COVID-19 screening.
KING: All right. We'll get your temperature here - 98.0. He's good for a wristband.
GOLDMAN: That got me closer to Seattle's T-Mobile Park. After signing a waiver protecting the Mariners from COVID liability, then I could take my seat in the press box. And there we go. In front of me, bright green grass mowed to perfection, pitchers pitching, batters batting. But this view down below would be as close as it gets. Reporters were not allowed on the field nor in the clubhouse. Interviews - Zoom sessions on your laptop.
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SCOTT SERVAIS: It is great to see you all. This is unprecedented times, but I'm really, really happy we're getting a chance to get back together.
GOLDMAN: Still, Seattle manager Scott Servais was pressed for time. He had to get to a team meeting in the stands along the first baseline, four seats separating each player, all of them wearing face masks. The clubhouse, the normal meeting site, now has limits to how many people can gather at a time. At summer camp, as players shake off the rust on their baseball skills, everyone - players, coaches, staff and, yes, reporters - are test-driving baseball's 100-plus-page health and safety plan. And Servais is determined to make sure the Mariners adhere.
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SERVAIS: We do not want to be the team that goes down, or you don't want to be the player or coach that has brought something in.
GOLDMAN: Players say they're policing each other, reminding teammates to wear a face mask if they're not and to stop spitting.
JUSTUS SHEFFIELD: That's the hard - and that's another hard one, too.
GOLDMAN: This is pitcher Justus Sheffield.
SHEFFIELD: I think today I was spitting, and somebody got on to me. So that's going to be kind of tough, especially pitching, you know, when you're out there not thinking about it.
GOLDMAN: For elite athletes who've mastered the art of not thinking and just doing, all of this will be a challenge, from the protocols to the truncated training to the season, shortened from a 162-game marathon to a 60-game sprint. Some players around the league have opted not to play. Asked about them, several Mariners said they have no problem with that. Each person makes his own decision, they said.
Seattle outfielder Braden Bishop says he debated what to do after his brother tested positive for COVID-19. Bishop chose to play despite his concern about the virus and the strangeness of this season.
BRADEN BISHOP: My window in the major leagues - whether it be two years, whether it be 10 years - you know, is going to be such a short time. And I don't want to let, you know, this crazy 60-game season be the reason that, you know, I wasn't ready and I played poorly, and then my career was - it was over because of that.
GOLDMAN: Bishop and his teammates will try to be as ready and healthy as they can be for their opening night July 24 in Houston.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Seattle.
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