HOPE SPRINTS ETER­NAL

De­layed 60-game sea­son should pro­vide plenty of mem­o­ries

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BOB NIGHT­EN­GALE Twit­ter: @BNight­en­gale

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

NAM Y. HUH/AP

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.

AP

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