Old and new normals: How Cal baseball approached player development during quarantine

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When quarantine started last March, many activities that we considered normal were abruptly stripped from our lives. For students, that primarily meant the “Zoomification” of all UC Berkeley in-person classes — a change that made it more difficult to process already-challenging material. The switch was perhaps even more disruptive for athletes and coaches; after all, virtual athletic instruction takes away the essential physical elements of any team sport.

So how did Cal baseball head coach Mike Neu and his staff persevere through the pandemic while keeping players on an upward trajectory?

“It’s definitely been different,” Neu said. “Since March, we basically have not had a chance to get on the field.”

For Neu and the team, a lack of on-field reps didn’t necessarily mean a lack of improvement. The Bears did what they could over video conference: They focused on game approach and mental training while conducting film review sessions that transferred nicely to the online format. Guest speakers, such as Oakland A’s infielder and UC Berkeley alumnus Marcus Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019, joined the blue and gold’s team calls to provide veteran insight.

“We definitely focus on mental training during the season, but to a lesser extent,” Neu said. “There are so many physical aspects — they’re weight training, they’re going through conditioning, they have their classes in person and we have our on-field practices. There was value spending more time on [the mental game].”

Mental clarity is one thing, but such a long break away from collegiate competition left room for physical stagnation. The lack of on-field practices meant that individuals needed to take responsibility for their own development. The team provided throwing and lifting programs that could be accessed through mobile apps, but without direct and in-person oversight from coaches, players ultimately decided their own levels of commitment. Some players found ways to take to the field safely in collegiate summer leagues, with pitcher Grant Holman and infielder Hance Smith among a group of Cal players who played in the San Diego League last year.

“We gave them a lot of direction and instruction, but it was really their responsibility to put in the work,” Neu said.

As 2021 arrives, Neu may finally be able to see the product of the players’ efforts in-person. The Bears were cleared to resume voluntary, in-person workouts last week, and all eyes will be set on preparing for a potential Pac-12 season. The campaign may come with its share of obstacles, and Neu knows that he’ll need a strong game plan to guide the Bears through the spring.

But thoughts of a full season can come later. Right now, Neu is just glad to see his players return to the field.

“Everybody’s excited to get back,” Neu said. “It’s going to be fun just getting the opportunity to get on the field and to hopefully play some game scenarios.”

At long last, Cal baseball has a piece of normalcy.

After nearly a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned to not only live with our new circumstances but to make the most of them — to treasure the time that we can spend safely with one another. And as the Bears reunite for their first organized practices since March, Neu has trust in his players and a hunger to get back to work.

“We have a really motivated group of guys, and they’re obviously at this level for a reason,” Neu said. “They really have the desire to be the best, so [quarantine] gave them the opportunity to take ownership of it.”

Chanun Ong covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].