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‘Accept what is’: The mental battles that the Giants are about to face

Courtesy San Francisco Giants

You won’t be seeing the face of one of the more important Giants presences this season.

You likely will be hearing his words, but only spoken through others.

Because in a 60-game sprint of a season, played through a pandemic, with one Giant already infected with COVID-19 and everyone weary, while the team tries essentially to live in a bubble and ignore the outside world, when one poor decision can mean jeopardizing your own health, everyone else’s and the viability of baseball at all — well, a mental-skills coach’s expertise becomes more urgent than merely useful.

Like many coaches and players, Derin McMains arrived in San Francisco this week unsure of when he would see his family, in Arizona, again. His task will be to ensure the Giants mentally can absorb the challenges that will come with baseball in 2020: your game coexisting with the coronavirus, limited access to the outside world, team camaraderie an obstacle like never before.

Entering camp 2.0, McMains said he had talked with a small handful of players recently and had not heard any of the hesitation that other teams and players have encountered. They want to play, and yet…

“I’m assuming that might change a little bit when we all get together and see the reality of how things are different,” McMains said over the phone this week, ahead of the Giants’ first workout Friday at Oracle Park. “I’ve been preparing for that.”

The Giants are entering a very different camp atmosphere. They will hope to remain healthy, though Hunter Bishop already has contracted COVID-19. Many said goodbye to families they won’t be seeing for a long while. They will not be congregating, lockers spaced out, report times staggered in three waves so the team can follow the social-distancing protocols.

McMains has been preparing, but also openly says he will have to adjust. The mental-skills coach doesn’t quite know what’s going on, either. What is baseball without Buster hugs, without Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval dances, without pats on the butt? How will they celebrate?

“I’m just waiting to see what that vibe is when we all get together and come up with something,” said McMains, who traveled with the team about two-thirds of the time last year but is not sure yet if this year will allow it. “I’m all for sign language — sign language for a hug is arms across the chest. And so already I’m thinking, All right, I’ll be doing a lot of arms across the chest.

“But it’s one thing that can’t be forced. I think that’s the fun thing about being in teams and groups: There’s things that just kind of happen organically. And we have a creative group.”

The most important step for the Giants will be to accept the world around them. If they constantly compare this season to others, this camp to Scottsdale’s, they will fall behind. That’s the biggest message McMains will hope to spread.

“There’s so much energy that’s wasted and tension that’s created when we try to control things we cannot control,” said McMains, in his second season as director of mental skills. “… It goes back to focus. I just want our guys to focus on what they can control and focus on what is — not to focus on past or future because all that is irrelevant. Because what matters is this moment, and instead of having desires for how it should be different, it really doesn’t matter. We just have to focus on: We need them to take our temperature? We take our temperature. Don’t high-five? We don’t high-five.”

The openness to anything already had been a theme of Giants camp, but not like this. No one knows how (or if) this will play out. Since spring training 1.0 shuttered, McMains has said the biggest challenge for Giants players has been not knowing what to do. Assuming they had access to equipment, how hard should they work out? A race with no established finish line can feel helplessly rote.

But they did get to spend time with family, which will be much harder to come by for 60 regular-season games. McMains anticipates separation anxiety they will have to talk through.

Loneliness can extend to games, where crowds will not be present. Baseball players are famously used to routine, and the routine is being upended.

“Early in these guys’ careers, a lot of them were in the Arizona [Fall] League or the Florida Gulf Coast League and Rookie League, where there weren’t fans,” McMains said. “… Although it’s not the best environment to play, a lot of these guys have done it.

“But I think for us in this season, it’s just so important for us to be present, and just to accept what is.”

If the Giants can handle it all? The swirling threat of illness, hurdling every obstacle that pops up with your teammates not quite at your side, but 6 feet away? Mentality could translate to on-field success.

“Acceptance is key in these times,” McMains said. “And I do think it’s going to be a competitive advantage — the players and the teams that are able to accept what is, is a competitive advantage right now.”


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