In a typical year, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, as well as thousands of fans during spring training. Upwards of 15 MLB teams gather at Salt River Fields to prepare for another year of baseball. That situation played out in early March, as MLB was almost two weeks away from Opening Day.
Things suddenly took a turn for the worst. COVID-19 spread to Scottsdale, Arizona and spring training was canceled with a delay to the 2020 season. The stadium that once seated up to 11,000 people was vacant without a fan in the stands.
Baseball has returned, and the Diamondbacks are using the facility as their alternate training site. Due to the cancellation of Minor League Baseball, each MLB team has an alternate training site, where up to 60 players play against one another throughout the year.
Salt River Fields is now home to dozens of prospects and coaches. Triple-A Reno Aces manager Chris Cron serves as the Diamondbacks Summer Camp Coordinator this season, and he’s adjusted to the new surroundings.
“It’s a different environment out here,” he said. “It looked a lot different a few months prior with fans and teams. But it’s all about getting these guys in shape and ready so that’s all that matters.”
The D-backs are currently in the midst of a shortened 60-game season. At Salt River Fields, intrasquad scrimmages are played every day. Up to 13 position players and pitchers are split into two teams with strict safety guidelines put in place.
Scrimmages are held without fans, but the sounds from the dugout and on the field helped infielder Andy Young blend into the action of the game.
“The experience was good for me,” he said. “Guys were talking and communicating like a normal game. We were getting used to the new protocols and things so it was nice to get some work in.”
Intrasquad scrimmages lack certain aspects of big league contests. Umpires aren’t available on hand, and coaches occasionally fill in as defensive substitutions. As long as players stay in shape and improve, that’s the primary goal.
“It’s kind of a makeshift thing going on right now,” Cron said. “We have coaches playing in the field. We don’t have umpires all the time, so we’re our own umps for games. It looks like regular baseball, we’re all wearing the same uniform so getting better is all that matters.”
If and when someone from the Diamondbacks’ coaching staff enters a scrimmage, MLB rules still apply if he is unable to make a play.
“If there’s a flyball hit and a coach is out there we’ll just let it drop,” Cron said. “A normal big leaguer would make the play, so we’ll call it an out no matter if the coach catches it or not. Things like a routine ground ball, if a coach can’t get it, we’re still calling it an out.”
Despite the unique circumstances in the current COVID-19 climate, each contest is packed with intensity and effort. Prospects are anxious to play and make an impression in hopes of getting promoted to Arizona.
Before his first call up to the big leagues, catching prospect Daulton Varsho credited the realistic atmosphere at the alternate training site.
“They’re doing their best to make everything gamelike,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of at-bats, and I’m catching or playing outfield every day. It’s really cool to get all those at-bats and have a season on the backfields, it’s a good opportunity for all of us.”
Several of Arizona’s top prospects are part of the 60-player pool in Scottsdale. They are typically scattered across different minor league levels, but most of them are bundled together this season at Salt River Fields.
Cron has had the luxury of watching the system’s deep talent unfold right in front of him.
“It’s been a very good collective bunch,” he said. “You have to have the best of the best to fill these roster spots and they’ve shown it. … We have a few prospects down here that haven’t really experienced this level of baseball and they’ve been impressive.”
Throughout the course of a season, players are optioned back-and-forth between the major leagues and the minors. Salt River Fields has become the Diamondbacks’ site for players to be sent down to their alternate training camp.
Players can still get the most out of a quirky 2020 season. Cron and the rest of the coaching staff are determined to help each player improve during these uncertain times.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re all getting ideas out there on ways to improve and make it as ideal as possible with limited resources. It’s been a blast thus far.”
Salt River Fields was barren five months ago, but it now serves an even bigger role as a development camp for players and coaches. Intrasquad scrimmages will continue to be played in the empty Scottsdale stadium, and it’s making the most out of an unprecedented 2020 season.