TAMPA, Fla. — Aaron Judge entered the batting cage and sent a long, high drive completely out of the park.
Far behind the left-field wall, two students from the University of South Florida paid no attention. They walked right past the stray ball that shimmered in bright sunshine on the lush green grass – they had to go to class.
Campus life continues. The world of big league baseball these days is very different now.
Caught in lockout limbo, Judge and his New York Yankees teammates, Boston ace Chris Sale, Atlanta slugger Adam Duvall and others are doing their best to stay free. Instead of playing on perfect diamonds in spring training games that were supposed to start this weekend, they opened up courts everywhere.
“We have to be ready,” Yankees infielder Gio Urshela said after a session with Gleyber Torres at Leto High School in Tampa.
“We can’t wait, like we’re sitting on the couch. We just have to work. We like to train, like hitting, all that stuff,” he said.
There were players in a spring park – Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Lindor were among those this week at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, for negotiations with the owners.
Otherwise, the complexes are closed for the pros and the exhibition matches are cancelled. As the Major League Baseball lockout reached its 87th day on Saturday, players are finding their own places to take bats and balls out.
Oakland Athletics second baseman Tony Kemp and his former Vanderbilt teammates are hosting their own spring camp in Nashville, Tennessee, with a handful of big leaguers who didn’t go to school there but are welcomed by longtime Commodores coach Tim Corbin.
Atlanta right-hander Kyle Wright trains alongside Giants receiver Curt Casali and San Francisco outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, Kemp’s former roommate. Most of them live within 10 minutes of each other, so there is a support network out of the diamond as well.
Duvall joined the mix on Friday. Angels infielder Phil Gosselin, Pittsburgh wide receiver Jacob Stallings and Seattle second baseman Adam Frazier also took part in the practices.
“We have a lot of guys at Vanderbilt training. It’s a prep environment,” Kemp said in a phone interview. “Honestly, it’s just a real blessing.”
“I can’t thank Corbin enough. It’s the best, you have a group of guys and it creates a good working environment because everyone is there to get after,” he said. “Even right now we’ve been able to stay ready because we have the guys here training in Nashville, we almost have enough to field a team.”
Kemp is the new father of 8-week-old daughter McKenna Catherine, who now sleeps six hours a night.
“To be honest, she’s been an angel baby,” the proud pop said.
From judge crushing balls in Tampa to Sale throwing a mound in Fort Myers at his Florida Gulf Coast University alma mater, lockdown workouts are in full swing.
The two-hour field sessions at USF have all the makings of normal spring training. There’s stretching, pitching, defensive work, and even pitchers practicing live batting with major league balls.
Beyond that, it’s a whole different ball game, with no fans and no stadium music.
Team rivalries are irrelevant and the major leagues mingle with the minor leagues. Judge’s teammates DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit worked with ex-Yankee Mike Ford, Baltimore’s Richie Martin, Minnesota’s Tim Beckham and Toronto’s Mallex Smith.
South Florida players and staff have lent a hand.
“We have great people helping us out,” LeMahieu said. “They’re great. They’re out there grinding with us. It was good working with other guys from different organizations.
Most normal amenities are non-existent.
Major league players occupy most of the parking spots on a small stretch of grass behind the right field fence. Others park on a nearby side street, bringing bags of gear with names like Dodgers and Marlins engraved on them.
There are no post-workout meals or showers. When the session ends, players collect their gear and head to their vehicles. A few spare shirts in the parking lot before leaving.
The places are also very varied.
The USF ballpark opened in 2011 and is considered a facility that can accommodate an NCAA Regional or Super Regional.
Urshela and Torres attended a high school about 15 minutes from Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees’ currently empty spring training facility. The park features a quaint set of metal bleachers behind the home plate and a small press box above the red-painted third base dugout.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Nick Anderson might have the most unusual location — he pitches in the parking lot of his physical therapist’s office. The right-hander, who is expected to start the season on the injured list with an elbow injury, is playing there after seeking medical treatment.
“You’re never too fat to play catch in a parking lot,” Anderson told the Tampa Bay Times.
The labor dispute has brought challenges, but also opportunities.
South Florida players get the chance to interact with big leaguers and show off some extra excitement while batting practice. On the Florida Gulf Coast, Sale threw the mound at some of the players.
“What strikes me the most about these guys is their character,” USF baseball coach Billy Mohl said on his Twitter Account. “They are great baseball ambassadors and great human beings.”
And also, the weather cooperated. Sunny skies and warm temperatures prevailed.
“Awesome,” LeMahieu said. “It’s good to be outside.”