Sergio Romo laughing it up during warmups. Max Kepler pounding baseballs off the batter’s eye in center field. Rich Hill looking strong in the bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins looking ready to pitch, not coach. Nelson Cruz promising to take it easy on Jose Berrios during live batting practice so he wouldn’t lose confidence.
Baseballs slapping into gloves. Over and over and over.
The sights and sounds of baseball were back at Target Field on Friday as the Twins held their first workout in front of a spread-out media. Pitchers got their throwing in before taking fielding practice. Then they retreated to the clubhouse as the batting cage was wheeled out. About an hour later, position players appeared for their workout. The sock of baseballs coming off of bats echoed around the stadium, a hint of what games could be like once the delayed Opening Day takes place in empty stadiums.
Two Twins players not in Minnesota Friday were righthander Cody Stashak, whose wife recently had a baby, and outfielder Byron Buxton, whose wife had one on Friday.
The Twins did not hold workouts for 16 weeks before returning to Target Field this week.
“That’s the part I think everyone on this call and me and anyone who works in this building is enjoying,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations. “Sitting and watching a few guys start throwing a ’pen and see some guys jump on the mound and there’s some chatter like you would in spring training.
“It feels to me a lot like it does in early February when you’re out there and guys are just getting started again. It feels like a lifetime ago we were in Fort Myers.”
Baseball has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the long and fruitless negotiations between the players and owners over how to start the season played a role as well. The league eventually announced a 60-game season that is expected to start July 23, leaving not much time for the Twins to prepare for the defense of their AL Central title.
And they will proceed under guidelines produced by the league to keep players as safe as possible. All players and staff — for the Twins that’s around 130 people — were tested this week as they arrived at the park. Falvey confirmed Friday that two players tested positive during the intake phase of testing. One was utility player Willians Astudillo, who agreed to have his name released. The other player was not identified.
Falvey did reveal that infielder Nick Gordon and righthander Edwar Colina tested positive for the virus while they were at home. Both will join the team once they reach two negative tests. Major League Baseball announced on Friday that 38 players and staff members, with 31 of them players, tested positive. The league is attempting to start the season while preparing for the inevitability of more positive tests.
Infielder Ehire Adrianza said he left his wife and daughter back home in Miami, because he doesn’t want them to get sick because of him.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Being around family is a good thing for me. The support my wife and my daughter gives me every day is going to be missed. I hope everybody ... it’s going to be tough for everybody here.”
The challenge for the Twins is to make their players feel as comfortable and safe as possible. They entered a stadium that they didn’t recognize Friday, with clubhouses rearranged, workout equipment on the concourses and massage tents down the left field line.
The Twins will stick to small-group workouts, separating pitchers and position players. The pitchers are dressing in the visitor’s clubhouse, with the hitters in the home clubhouse. The Twins are using as much of Target Field as they can. Players can eat, stretch and get massages outdoors if they choose to.
“One of the things we’re attentive to, and we’ve shared on past calls, is just making sure that we’re following as much of the science as possible,” Falvey said. “And what we know about that is, being outside in open air, and masks, the combination of those things can reduce the transmission of the virus by a significant amount. So we wanted to create some outdoor spaces where players can do some of the things they have to do normally inside.”
More players likely will test positive as the delayed Opening Day nears, but the Twins and MLB have tried to be as thorough as possible to create the best workout environment possible.
“MLB along with the Twins [and] all the organizations have guidelines and protocols to minimize the risk,” righthander Kenta Maeda said, “so I’m not [worried]. I don’t feel too much of a concern about that.”
Most of the players who will work out at Target Field were with the team last year or are competing for spots. Most of the remaining players will work out at CHS Field in St. Paul.
Manager Rocco Baldelli plans to address the team Saturday, with part of his speech expected to touch on the importance of staying safe and not letting teammates down by making poor health decisions.
The live batting practice schedule will eventually transition into intrasquad games. And Falvey acknowledged Friday that the club might schedule an exhibition game with another club near the end of camp. Teams are allowed to schedule no more than three such games before the start of the regular season.
So the Twins will pretend it’s February again, toiling under sun-drenched fields, in a setup they aren’t used to, hoping that summer training will go as smoothly as possible.
“I was walking around a little just observing where guys were and some of their interactions, “Falvey said. “Guys with masks on everywhere before they go out on the field to play catch and throw. Even some are throwing with those masks on while they’re out there. Everyone is trying to get used to it; that’s probably the best way to describe it.
“I think it’s a range of feelings. Some guys are a bit anxious. That’s real. And some guys are really excited to be back and ready to go and just trying to figure it out. Like anything, it’s different than what we’re used to or the norm. It’s going to take some time. But in the early going I think guys are enjoying the chance to be around one another again.”