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MLB Players Returning To Alma Mater’s To Keep Fresh Amid Lockout

Aaron Judge stepped into the batting cage and sent a long, high drive completely out of the park.

Far behind the left-field wall, a couple of University of South Florida students paid no attention. They walked right past the stray ball that glistened in bright sunshine on the lush green grass – they had to get to class.

Campus life carries on. The big league baseball world these days, now that’s a lot different.

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 loose. Instead of playing on perfect diamonds in spring training games that had been set to start this weekend, they’ve taken to open fields all over.

“We’ve got to be ready,” Yankees infielder Gio Urshela said after a session with Gleyber Torres at Leto High School in Tampa.

“We can’t wait, just like sitting on the couch. We’ve just got to be working. We enjoy working out, like hitting, all that,” he said.

There were players at one spring park — Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Lindor were among those this week at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, for negotiations with owners.

Otherwise, the complexes are shut for the pros and exhibition games are canceled. So as the Major League Baseball lockout reached its 87th day Saturday, players are finding their own places to break out the bats and balls.

Oakland Athletics second baseman Tony Kemp and his former Vanderbilt teammates are holding their own spring camp of sorts in Nashville, Tennessee, along 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 is working out alongside Giants catcher Curt Casali and San Francisco outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, Kemp’s old college roommate. Most of them live within 10 minutes of each other, so there’s a support network off the diamond, too.

Duvall joined the mix Friday. Angels infielder Phil Gosselin, Pittsburgh catcher Jacob Stallings and Seattle second baseman Adam Frazier also have taken part in the workouts.

“We’ve got a lot of guys up at Vanderbilt that train. It’s a get-ready environment,” Kemp said in a phone interview. “Honestly it’s just a true blessing.”

“I can’t thank Corbin enough. It’s the best, you have a bunch of guys and it makes for a good working environment because everyone is in there getting after it,” he said. “Even right now we’ve been able to stay ready because we have the guys here that train in Nashville, we almost have enough to field a team.”

Kemp is a new father to 8-week-old daughter McKenna Catherine, who is now sleeping six-hour stretches at night.

“She’s been an angel baby, to be honest,” the proud pop said.

From Judge crushing balls in Tampa to Sale throwing off a mound in Fort Myers at his alma mater of Florida Gulf Coast University, lockout workouts are in full swing.

The two-hour, on-field sessions at USF have all the ingredients of normal spring training. There is stretching, throwing, defensive work and even pitchers tossing live batting practice with major league balls.

Beyond that it’s a whole different ballgame, with no fans and no stadium music.

Team rivalries are irrelevant, and major leaguers mix with minor leaguers. Judge’s teammates, DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit, have worked out with ex-Yankee Mike Ford, Baltimore’s Richie Martin, Minnesota’s Tim Beckham and Toronto’s Mallex Smith.

The South Florida players and staff have lent a hand.

“We have some great people helping us,” LeMahieu said. “They’re awesome. They’re out there grinding with us. It’s been good to work with some other guys from different organizations.”

Most of the normal amenities are nonexistent.

The big 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 along equipment bags with names like Dodgers and Marlins stenciled on them.

There are no post-workout meals or showers. When the session ends, the players collect their gear and go to their vehicles. A few change shirts in the lot before departing.

The venues also vary greatly.

The USF Baseball Stadium opened in 2011 and is considered a facility that could host a NCAA regional or super regional.

Urshela and Torres have been at a high school about 15 minutes away from Steinbrenner Field, the currently empty Yankees’ spring training complex. The park features a quaint set of metal bleachers behind the 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’s tossing in the parking lot of his physical therapist’s office. The right-hander, expected to start the season on the injured list because of an elbow injury, plays catch there after getting treatment.

“You’re never too big to play some catch in a parking lot,” Anderson told the Tampa Bay Times.

The labor strife has brought about challenges, but also opportunities.

The South Florida players get the chance to interact with big leaguers and are displaying extra enthusiasm while shagging batting practice. At Florida Gulf Coast, Sale threw off the mound to some of the players.

“The thing that stands out to me most about these guys is their character,” USF baseball coach Billy Mohl posted on his Twitter account. “They are great ambassadors to the game of baseball and great human beings.”

And also, the weather has cooperated. Sunny skies and warm temperatures have prevailed.

“Awesome,” LeMahieu said. “It’s good to be outside.”

___

By MARK DIDTLER

AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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