Jim Souhan
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We gathered at Target Field on Thursday night to contemplate a question both scientific and philosophic:

If a hype video plays in an empty ballpark, does anyone actually get hyped?

The logo on the supersized scoreboard above the left field stands read: 2020 Summer Camp. And that’s what it felt like, as if a bunch of guys had rented out Target Field for the night for a ballgame and maybe a sleepover and some s’mores.

Thursday night, the Twins ran an intrasquad scrimmage, replete with a PA announcer and walk-up music. They were preparing their players for the regular season and the stadium for real games, but the result was the strangest day I’ve spent in a ballpark since I first covered a big-league game in 1985.

Thanks to a canceled spring training trip, it was also the first day I’ve spent in a ballpark in nine months. While I would like to tell you that it was thrilling to return ... well, it really wasn’t. It was better than nothing and yet a sad reminder of what should have, could have, been.

The crack of the bat is supposed to be accompanied by cheers or gasps, not resolute silence. You’re not supposed to be able to hear Sergio Romo yelling at his teammates from the bullpen. The final words spoken on the loudspeaker should not be “Attendance: Zero.”

Our country has botched the pandemic response so badly that on July 9, a team capable of winning another 101 games in a normal year held a workout in a ballpark with zero fans and just a handful of journalists, in the hopes of playing a 60-game season.

In the top of the first inning, with Jake Odorizzi on the mound, there were times when the only sound in the park was a bird chirping.

Baseball writers are often cautioned not to presume they’ve seen something unique in the game, because just about everything has happened before.

But this felt unique. A spring training delayed by months. Players and coaches wearing masks. Toe-tapping replacing high-fiving. Electronically called balls and strikes.

Relief pitcher Matt Wisler (37) sat in the empty stands during the scrimmage before his stint on the mound,
Relief pitcher Matt Wisler (37) sat in the empty stands during the scrimmage before his stint on the mound,

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

When Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz fouled consecutive pitches to the mezzanine level in the bottom of the first, no one pursued the souvenir balls. Nobody bothered to retrieve Josh Donaldson’s home run into the right field stands.

“We all play for the fans, you know?” Cruz said. “Even now, we come up with the questions, how is it going to be? How are we going to get the energy from them, you know?

‘‘I guess they’re watching, we’ll have to feel it from TV. It’s going to be weird.”

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said the ballpark noise “gives you some adrenaline, some flashes to regular-season action.”

Maybe.

Know what was notably missing at the ballpark, though? Ushers.

Over the years, press box ushers become friends, and the stadium ushers seem like the happiest souls in sports — people who just want to be in the room where it happens.

For ballplayers, the clubhouse is usually that room when it comes to studying the game, socializing, working out, eating, stretching, icing and goofing around.

The clubhouse is now a place to check in, not commune.

“When we all first kind of got here, the first day or two, it was kind of weird adjusting to wearing a mask everywhere and how we have [assigned] times set up,” pitcher Randy Dobnak said. “Basically come in and get out, we can’t like hang around as much as we used to.”

Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson (24) and shortstop Jorge Polanco (11) gave each other foot bumps instead of high fives at practice.
Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson (24) and shortstop Jorge Polanco (11) gave each other foot bumps instead of high fives at practice.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Spring training is usually about hope. This strange summer camp should be, too.

This is a good team. Rich Hill is healthy. Byron Buxton is healthy and looks remarkably sharp.

Baldelli said: “Through everything that’s gone on — pandemic, coming back, Spring Training 2.0, the masks, really so many things — just being able to get back out on the field, putting baseball pants on, making it a place where the guys can go out and enjoy themselves and have fun and just worry about playing baseball in a normal atmosphere.”

That all sounded good, until he said “Normal.”