Major League Baseball during a pandemic looks like this: A masked hitter smashing a home run, a bottle of hand sanitizer hanging from an umpire’s waistband, cardboard cutouts of fans positioned in the seats behind home plate, artificial cheering used after plays that benefited the home team.
It was peculiar, but for so many Yankees and Mets players, it was most welcome. Although Saturday’s exhibition and Sunday night’s scheduled one were preludes to the abbreviated 60-game regular season, which begins on Thursday, both sides had not faced another opponent since March 12 — the day spring training was shut down because of the coronavirus.
In a normal year, crosstown rivals squaring off would add intrigue. But in a world flipped upside down by a pandemic, players were happy to be competing against someone other than their own teammates and inching toward games that count.
“This is one of the days that we were wishing and waiting for during the second off-season,” the Mets’ star first baseman, Pete Alonso, said before his team lost to the Yankees, 9-3, on Saturday night at Citi Field.
These exhibition games arose quickly out of necessity. The second preseason was originally supposed to be held in Arizona and Florida, the two hubs of spring training. Scheduling games would have been much easier given the proximity of the teams.
But because coronavirus cases surged in both states and teams experienced an increase of infections among their players and staff members, Major League Baseball moved summer workouts to clubs’ home stadiums. Teams were allowed to play as many intrasquad games as desired, but only three exhibition games against another club were permitted.
The Cleveland Indians took a two-hour ride — and dealt with a broken-down bus — to Pittsburgh to face the Pirates on Saturday. The Philadelphia Phillies played the Nationals in Washington on Saturday, and were to host the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday and then face the Yankees on Monday in the Bronx.
Other teams had to get on a plane: the Houston Astros to Kansas City, Mo., and the Miami Marlins to Atlanta. The most remote team, though — the Seattle Mariners — had only intrasquad contests on tap. The farthest the Yankees had to travel for their three games: Queens on Saturday.
As a few players did, Yankees Manager Aaron Boone skipped the team bus and drove himself and his bench coach, Carlos Mendoza, to Citi Field. The routine was unlike a normal Mets-Yankees game: There was a temperature check before entering the stadium, masks were required indoors, every other locker stall was empty in the visitors’ clubhouse and a canopy was erected behind each dugout so reserve players could watch with more distancing.
“It was a little bit different, but exciting at the same time: We’re finally playing another team,” Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela said.
Both teams saw these exhibition games as equally useful on and off the field. There are 113 pages of new M.L.B. regulations unique to the 2020 season, so these games were a trial run for hosting a visiting team. And while teammates may offer feedback, opponents raise the stakes.
“I felt like I was overthrowing, but that was to be expected facing a different team,” said Yankees pitcher Zack Britton, who allowed one run in one inning on Saturday. “It was good to finally get that feeling of getting some adrenaline in that way so it’s not brand-new when we open up the regular season.”
One player who could benefit from facing opponents: infielder D.J. LeMahieu, the Yankees’ best all-around player last season. He joined the team on Friday after the Yankees announced on July 4 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus while at home in Michigan. He said he took nearly a dozen tests before he finally notched the consecutive negative results at least 24 hours apart mandated by M.L.B. for a return. He said he never had any symptoms.
LeMahieu did not play in the game on Saturday. He stayed at Yankee Stadium to work out. As far as his 2020 debut goes, he said, “If it’s not opening day, it’s going to be the first few games.”
For those who played on Saturday, it was a useful tuneup. Rick Porcello, the Mets’ starting pitcher, gave up three runs over five innings, including a two-run, second-deck blast to Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, one of the few players to don a face covering during the game.
“None of us — you guys, us players or really, I think, anybody — knew how it was going to work once we got to camp,” Porcello said. “Each day that’s gone by, it seems to be rolling smoother and smoother — knock on wood. Now we get to this point where we’re playing against other teams and in a couple of days we’ll get into a regular season. It’s exciting just because of the unknowns coming into this season.”
Vying for a spot on the Yankees’ opening day roster, Michael King, a rookie, surrendered just one run over four innings on Saturday. The Mets committed four errors, two by third baseman Max Moroff. During a sequence in the sixth inning in which three straight balls were hit to him, the artificial cheering was inadvertently played when he threw wide of first base.
King said he did not mind the fake crowd noise. He was initially taken aback, though, by the several hundred cardboard cutouts of Mets fans behind the plate, calling them “a little weird.” But he quickly forgot about them as he focused on the opposing hitters. Britton said he actually liked the cutouts.
“I guarantee you if fans were out there, I would definitely be a little bit more pumped up and have a little bit more adrenaline,” King said. “But still, pitching against another team was all the adrenaline I needed.”
After the game, players and coaches said it felt fairly normal despite the new restrictions and the empty stands. “For being an exhibition, it felt really competitive,” Boone said. But he noted that his players had one particular area of improvement: After the final out, they weren’t sure how to celebrate given M.L.B.’s ban on high-fives and fist bumps. They used pantomimes instead.
“Hopefully we can get more creative in the regular season where it’s a big deal when you win a game,” Boone said. “I don’t want to lose that.”
Domingo German, the Yankees pitcher who is serving the remaining 63 games of his 81-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, apologized for his Instagram posts on Friday in which he suggested he was retiring. German deleted those posts on Saturday and wrote, “I promise I am not walking away.” He added, “Not being with my teammates while they get ready for the season, knowing that I have let them down, has taken a toll on me and last night I let my emotions get the best of me.” German also wrote that the past year had been “very tough” for him and his family, “for which I take full responsibility.” German, 27, was suspended in January under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy because of his actions in September involving his girlfriend.