HOPE SPRINTS ETERNAL
Delayed 60-game season should provide plenty of memories
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 6:08 p.m. Thursday with the defending World Series champion Nationals hosting the Yankees.
There will be no fans in attendance. Only cardboard cutouts. 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.
“As of right now, I feel pretty confident about the league as a whole moving forward and getting this season in,’’ said Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who starts Thursday
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 and 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 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.’’
It will be the shortest regular season in baseball history.
Yet, with a daunting manual of safety and health protocols that 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 reopening three weeks ago.
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 restroom. 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,’’ 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.’’
And 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, 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 designated hitter 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.
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 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 alltime high.’’
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.
“THEY SAY BASEBALL IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT. NOT THIS YEAR.”
DEXTER FOWLER, Cardinals outfielder
Every game in this shortened, one-of-a-kind season will be magnified, a fact well-known to White Sox manager Rick Renteria (right) and his staff.