Ever go to a fancy dinner, get served four courses, fork over an obscene amount of money, and still need a cheeseburger on the way home? Sports-starved fans might feel the same way right about now. We’ve seen golf, NASCAR, Major League Soccer, and European soccer leagues return to play, but we’re still hungry for something more satisfying. Good news, your Five Guys burger is here.
Major League Baseball will make its triumphant return to the diamond Thursday night as the World Series Champion Washington Nationals host the American League favorite New York Yankees. Three-time Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer will match up against the biggest off-season acquisition, $324-million man Gerrit Cole. Arguably the most intriguing pitch will already have been tossed, however — by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Brooklyn-born Fauci, who is a fan of both teams, will ring in this strange coronavirus-covered, 60-game sprint to the finish.
The 2020 season is coming on the heels of an acrimonious contract negotiation that resulted in a four-month delay but could oddly make this the most entertaining season in decades. One hundred sixty-two games is not just a marathon; it’s a devastatingly long slog of a season. Now every game counts. Every series matters immensely. There will be no repeat of 2019, when the Nationals made playoffs despite a dreadful 19-and-31 start. It won’t just be shorter, however. This year will be vastly different from anything baseball fans have ever experienced.
As of now, no fans will be in the stands, though various teams are hoping their state governors approve limited, socially distanced seating. Stadiums will pipe in crowd noise, which will be heard both by the players and viewers watching at home. MLB is also rolling out a new feature called “Cheer at the Ballpark,” which will allow fans to be heard over the MLB app. In theory, they’ll get to boo José Altuve and the sign-stealing Astros with every at bat. MLB says ballpark staffs will “use real-time sentiment to control/vary noise variation/levels at the ballpark.”
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Social media has already both booed and cheered baseball’s newest pre-game protest, in keeping with other professional athletes protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Both the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, with manager Gabe Kapler, took a knee prior to exhibition games this week, the latter prompting President Donald Trump to tweet, “[A]ny time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”
America’s favorite pastime will sound and look different. Both leagues will utilize the designated hitter, and extra innings will start with a runner on second base to expedite the finish. Players are not allowed to high-five nor hug, and they won’t be allowed to spit or argue within six feet of an umpire. Players and staff not involved in that particular game will sit in the stands socially distanced. A handful of players, including the Phillies’ Didi Gregorius and the Yankees’ Clint Frazier, will even wear masks throughout the entire game.
The quality of play will be anyone’s guess. Training has been shortened to three weeks, suggesting we might see sloppy defense and increased pitching changes, according to Indians skipper Terry Francona, who said, “[W]ithout the repetitions, teams are going to make mistakes.”
Also unknown is what will happen if a coronavirus outbreak occurs. Thus far, only 0.1 percent of the 17,949 MLB monitoring tests yielded a positive result. Players testing positive must quarantine for two weeks. They must be symptom-free and test negative twice before rejoining. How would the league, let alone a contending club, handle a two-week absence of three or four key players? In a shortened season, that would be as debilitating as the disease.
While other leagues such as MLS (underway) and the NBA, which starts play one week from Thursday, are isolating in bubbles, baseball will travel around the country to hot spots, including Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The shortened schedule calls for 10 games against the other four divisional teams, for a total of 40 with the additional 20 games in interleague play. For example, the Colorado Rockies will play a staggering 27 of 31 road games in COVID-19 hot spots: California, Texas, and Arizona.
The success or failure of this experiment will no doubt go a long way toward determining if football leagues have a legitimate shot of playing this fall, so no matter your favorite sport, you’d best be cheering loudly from your couch for baseball to pull off this shortened season.