This isn't exactly the way Jon Lester envisioned the final year of his $155 million free agent deal with the Cubs.
A couple of months ago it was difficult to envision anything this season, much less the scene at Wrigley Field he has been part of the past week - and certainly not the mask he has at all times and the piped-in ambient crowd noise he'll hear for the first time when he pitches in an intrasquad game Sunday night for the first time during this restarted training camp.
"It's weird," the five-time All-Star said. "It's unique. The cool part is everybody's taking it in stride. All this stuff with the mask and the protocols and the testing and all that is weird but now we just have to adapt and make it kind of normal."
That's not going to happen. Not for the Cubs or any other team, no matter how long this 30-team, 1,800-player effort at playing baseball during a pandemic lasts.
But for the Cubs, Lester might be as close as normal gets in the middle of all the "weird."
When asked Saturday about what Lester brings to the team, the first words out of manager David Ross' mouth were, "his presence."
It's been there since 2015 as the stabilizing, credibility-building influence for a team that went from last place to 97 wins in his first season and a rise to that historic championship in his second.
Lester has earned two All-Star selections, made 10 postseason starts and four Opening Day starts for the Cubs during his five seasons in Chicago.
And just because he won't start this year's opener or that he's coming off a disappointing 2019 season (4.46 ERA) doesn't mean he won't have a major influence on this team's chances to focus and have success on the field this year and, perhaps just as important, off the field as it navigates the COVID-19 risks.
"Jon's done so much for this group and this organization as far as preparation off the field, how he goes about his business prior to his start day, the routine he has when he comes in here," said Ross, a teammate before he became Lester's manager. "He doesn't vary from that routine.
"His resumé obviously speaks for itself of what he's done. But outside of what he's done on the field, I think he's influenced this organization as a whole in a really good way."
Lester, 36, is the most accomplished, longest-tenured player on the club - a career workhorse and three-time champion who's five years older than one of the coaches and closer in age to four more than he is to any of his teammates.
So when Lester wears a mask, those around him notice.
"I think we're all a little nervous," he said. "Nobody wants to get this thing. You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we're trying to create here; you have to believe in these things [holds up a mask]."
Whether Lester is able to achieve the bounce-back performance in a short season that he sought when he started the original spring training in February, he starts the second training camp behind the four other projected starters in a rotation already missing Jose Quintana (thumb injury) - all of whom started twice in scrimmages the first eight days of workouts
"I had a hard time just diving into going and trying to throw bullpens and trying to simulate innings [during the uncertainty timeline of the shutdown]," said the only Cubs starter who didn't try to ramp up aggressively ahead of camp. "I figured that if I kept my body in shape and kept my arm going [in the weight room] that I would be fine when we got to this stage - it would just be a little slower."
He said the "multiple factors" involved in that approach includes knowing himself well enough at this point in his career to trust what he needs to get ready - even in a short, "weird" prep period.
"I feel like I'm in a good place," he said.
Who's going to tell him he's not? After the past five years, who's going to suddenly decide they don't trust what Lester brings to his job, or even the rest of the room?
In February Ross looked at a "leaner" version of Lester and said he had no concerns about the longtime ace and where he would be once the season started: "I know what his mentality is," he said. "He is a guy that still has the top-of-the-rotation potential for me."
That mentality. The presence. Lester's belief and lead role in creating a "kind of normal."
It might put him at the top of the Cubs' rotation in more ways this year than he ever has been in his career.
Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago