By Bob Nightengale |
It began and suddenly halted four months ago in spring training and then restarted as summer camp. Now, filled with trepidation the time has come.
It’s the 2020 Major League Baseball season.
It finally has arrived, 119 days later than originally scheduled, and will be the first major team sport to return to the world beginning at 7:08 p.m. ET Thursday with the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals playing the New York Yankees in the nation’s capital.
There will be no fans in attendance. Only cardboard cut-outs. Pumped-in fake crowd noise required by every team. No smell of hot dogs. Virtual advertising everywhere you look. Players sitting in the stands and makeshift dugouts, socially distancing, six feet apart. And there will be displays of social messaging too, with players permitted to wear “Black Lives Matter” or “United for Change’’ patches on their uniforms, with “Black Lives Matter” stenciled on the pitcher’s mounds during the opening weekend of games.
It’s only appropriate that the person throwing out the ceremonial first pitch would be Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a member of the White House coronavirus task force.
“I think it’s pretty fitting considering that we’re re-starting in the middle of a pandemic,’’ said Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who starts Thursday. “For him to be out there throwing the first pitch, I think that’s a big signal to our country what that means. We can do this. He believes in it. …
“As of right now, I feel pretty confident about the league as a whole moving forward and getting this season in.’’
This will be a season like we’ve never seen, and perhaps forever remembered, particularly if it continues to defy the odds of playing 60 regular-season games, surviving long enough into deep October to crown a World Series champion.
“There will be an asterisk next to this year, no matter what happens,’’ former MVP Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s going to be remembered as the COVID season, one that we’ll have a better understanding of it when we look back 15 or 20 years.
“The unpredictable is going to happen. Crazy things are going to happen. But you’ve got to embrace the unconventional.’’
It will be the shortest regular-season in baseball history.
No one can dare predict if the season will last its entirety, not with at least 1,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the country Tuesday, with the disease rising to record levels across 16 states, and health officials predicting that infections will continue to rise the next few months.
Yet, with a daunting manual of safety and health protocols that Major League Baseball teams must religiously follow, with mandatory testing every other day, they’ve shattered the odds of making it this far. There has been an infection rate of just 1.8% of players and staffers since the re-opening of spring training three weeks ago. There were only six positive tests among the 10,548 samples, 0.05%, for COVID-19 last week.
“Our players have been fantastic and completely dedicated to following the extensive health and safety initiatives,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Baseball fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of our game to the field, and due to the efforts of the players in understanding the protocols, Opening Day has been made possible.’’
And now, on center stage for the world to see, Major League Baseball is showing that even in the middle of a pandemic, it’s possible to have a sense of normalcy, providing everyone is responsible.
“I think this whole season is kind of an example of the kind of measures it takes to resume a lot of things during the pandemic,’’ Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. “So I think it will be an important and kind of powerful statement when people are watching the game (Thursday) and there are guys in the dugout wearing masks and people are social distancing. …
“We can be an example to not just other sports leagues but to the general public, and other large corporations, about what its going to take to keep your employees and their families safe during a pandemic. How do we adapt with a vaccine, and what kind of measures do we have to take to move forward.’’
The true litmus test will commence Thursday when teams leave the safety of their homes and ballparks and start traveling to cities for the first time this season. They are required to sit on the airplane without leaving their seats unless using the restrooms. They will be on the lower level floors of hotels where they’re encouraged not to use the elevators. Hotel restaurants, bars, fitness rooms and swimming pools are off-limits. Masks are mandatory except on the playing field. Players are prohibited having their lockers close to one another at the ballpark, shaking hands, spitting, chewing sunflower seeds, or even throwing the ball around the infield when not in play. There won’t even be a traditional lineup card exchange.
“It’s all going to be real challenging,’’ Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker says. “I’ve heard some complaining, but it’s been very little. This is different. This is inconvenient.
“But it beats the alternative of us not playing at all.’’
There already have been snags in the testing process. Five teams cancelled workouts around the July 4th holiday weekend when test results did not return in time. The Oakland A’s first full-squad workout started three days after everyone else. Dozens of players missed workouts awaiting test results.
“What would happen if my test results didn’t come back in time,’’ Astros Cy Young winner Justin Verlander said, “and I’m the starting pitcher that day? That would be pretty tough to leave my team hanging like that just because the results aren’t back, and we largely know they’ll probably be negative because I’ve been doing my part to social distance.’’
Worse, what happens if the tests results don’t come back for an entire team before the start of the game? Do they still take the field? Do they postpone the game?
The Toronto Blue Jays already have been faced with the biggest challenge when the Canadian government denied their request to play home games at the Roger s Centre. They planned to play all but a handful of their home games in Pittsburgh, sharing PNC Park with the Pirates, only for the Pennsylvania Department of Heath to deny permission Wednesday. So, with their season starting Friday, they still have no idea where they’ll be this season for home games.
The coronavirus positive cases soared past 400,000 in California this week, and if Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the state to be shut down again, it could leave five baseball teams without a home to play.
And as long as everyone’s taking the field, hey, there’s still a World Series trophy to be won. It will look just like every other World Series trophy. It will mean just as much, if not more, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. It just may be remembered longer.
Every team is facing the same set of daunting challenges, and maybe there’s an element of truth in Astros GM James Click’s comments that perhaps the team with the fewest positive tests will be the last one standing. There are new rules changes. There’s a DH in the National League for the first time. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base. Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters
But the pitcher’s mound is still 60-feet-6 inches from the plate. The basepaths are 90 feet apart. And you can still only have nine guys on the field at one time.
The most dramatic change will be the competitive balance. FanGraphs forecasts that 20 of the 30 teams will win at least 30 games, creating a wild and zany final week.
“What does 60 games prove? I don’t know,” Nationals reliever Daniel Hudson asked. “Can you really figure out who’s the best baseball team in the league from 60 games? Probably not.”
That’s the beauty, of course, in this 60-game sprint. The champion may not be the best team. There will be a fluke or two in the postseason, and a few top-quality teams sitting home. The Nationals, who started off 19-31 last year, never would have been around to win their first World Series. The Seattle Mariners, who started off 13-2, may have earned their first playoff berth since 2001.
This is a season in which every game will be magnified by 2.7 times. A five-game winning streak is equivalent to a 14-game winning streak in a 162-game season. A 10-game losing streak feels like a 27-game losing streak.
“You got to go out there with guns blazing from the first pitch on,’’ Cardinals veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler says. “They say baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Not this year. Your adrenaline has got to be at an all-time high.
“Everything will be look so different.’’
For the first time in baseball history, the pennant stretch starts on opening day.
And in 39 days is the trade deadline.
Love it or hate it, the abnormal is baseball’s new normal.