NEW YORK (AP) — Didi Gregorius watched over the top of his face mask as his drive off Washington ace Max Scherzer sailed into empty outfield seats.
Fake cheers — meant to encourage the hometown Nationals — accidentally piped through the stadium as the Philadelphia Phillies shortstop rounded the bases. After touching home plate, he pantomimed air-fives to teammates.
Baseball’s first pandemic-era homer sure was fitting.
Exhibition games in Washington, New York and Pittsburgh on Saturday gave Major League Baseball its first look at coronavirus-era games — fake crowd noise and all. Still, for clubs limited to practices and intrasquads in their own ballparks for the past two weeks, Saturday stood as an important mile marker as baseball tries to start a shortened 60-game season next Thursday amid a pandemic.
“In some ways, this is very much a dress rehearsal for the new world we’re in,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before an exhibition at the crosstown Mets.
No fans rushed off the 7 train in Flushing at Citi Field, and no masses hurried over the Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh — not with MLB planning to start this pandemic-shaken season at empty stadiums. At Nationals Park, two people watched from a building balcony far beyond the left field wall.
Umpires wore face masks, as did some players. Backups watched from the stands to maintain social distancing in dugouts. They all tried to follow safety protocols, including a ban on licking fingers or spitting.
Gregorius drilled a three-run homer in the first inning in Washington, the first big fly by a player in any of Saturday’s games.
The 30-year-old first-year Phillie is one of a handful of players who has said he’ll wear a mask full-time this season. Gregorius has a chronic kidney disorder that makes him high risk for the coronavirus.
Scherzer is expected to throw the first pitch of the regular season when the Nats host new ace Gerrit Cole and the Yankees on Thursday night. The right-hander struggled in his final tuneup, also allowing a three-run shot to former teammate Bryce Harper.
Booed heartily last season after spurning Washington in free agency, Harper heard no such jeers this time.
For their first exhibition game since the virus outbreak shut down spring training in mid-March, Yankees players took a team bus from the Bronx to Queens to meet the Mets — no subways for this series.
The pregame routine looked familiar enough — soaring batting practice homers from Giancarlo Stanton and Pete Alonso, ground ball work for Gleyber Torres and Robinson Canó.