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'It's weird': Tigers get back in the swing of things but keep their distance

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — The sounds of summer are back at Comerica Park — just a little later than normal.

The Tigers returned Friday morning to Comerica Park for the first day of Summer Camp, a long-awaited continuation of their Lakeland spring training, which was ended abruptly in late March because of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 35 pitchers and catchers worked out on the field in staggered groups to ensure physical distancing and got loose in the next stage of ramping up for the 60-game regular season, which is slated to begin July 23-24.

Miguel Cabrera

The opening of Summer Camp marked a new beginning for baseball and for the Tigers in the pandemic era, with plenty of regulations and guidelines in the wake of the virus. 

It’s the new normal, but it’s still not normal at all.

“How weird was it out there today? It was pretty weird. I think it's even more weird in the clubhouse, where we are wearing masks,” pitcher Michael Fulmer said via teleconference. “Everybody's got their little camouflage sack of baseballs that we use, and make sure that we're staying six feet apart.

“There are Xs in the dugout where we can and can’t stand. You have to come down to the field one way and back off the field another way, so it’s going to definitely take some getting used to, but as long as we’re playing baseball, I can follow about anything.”

There’s a palpable difference with no fans in the stands, no concessions but there was music blaring over the loudspeakers, to help fill some of the auditory void. Media members normally being able to mingle around the fields in spring training with players and coaches, there were specific instructions about staying a greater distance away and only in specific areas of the ballpark. 

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Coaches and team staff around the players donned masks to adhere to the new guidelines, but the new normal extends beyond just on-field precautions; it — much like the virus — is ubiquitous.

“We’ve all got to adhere to the protocols and everything that they’re telling us about. Away from the field, you’ve got to take care of yourself, you’ve got to wear your mask and stay away from big crowds,” Gardenhire said. “There’s a lot of people involved in this clubhouse, so not only just the team itself, but our bosses and the clubhouse kids, so to do the right thing, and make sure that when you’re away from the field, you’re doing the right thing and taken care of, so you don’t bring (the virus) back and harm somebody else.

“I think our guys understand that we’re pounding it into their heads as much as we possibly can.”

The new guidelines are going to take some time to get used to, including no spitting, chewing sunflower seeds or high-fives and physical touch. The camaraderie and bonding that has for so long been part of baseball has been replaced — at least temporarily — by distancing, head nods and elbow bumps. 

“It’s really different. It’s kind of weird, actually not being able to like shake hands and just get close and talk to people and goof around, but it was fun being back on the field and trying to get back in the groove and just taking batting practice in Comerica again,” outfielder JaCoby Jones said. “I’m actually looking forward to taking some fly balls out there. It’s weird, I guess, because there’s so much distancing and everything and wearing the mask in the clubhouse. It’s a little different with all these rules and stipulations and stuff but once you get on the field, it’s just baseball again.”

Beyond the pitchers and catchers, the rest of the position players have begun to trickle into town and they’ll begin full-squad workouts on Monday, with a couple weeks to be ready for the real games, with real pitches, real hits and real baseball.

Some of the position players made cameo appearances in the batting cage on Friday, including Miguel Cabrera, who looked slimmed down and ready to continue the groove he was in during the spring training in Lakeland.

Just before the season starts, they’ll have an opportunity to play some intra-squad scrimmages to get a feel for live action and the 60-man squad will be split into a 30-man main squad and a 30-man taxi squad that will work out in Toledo.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard