Major League Baseball, such as it is, returns to our pandemic-addled consciousness Thursday, bearing a faint resemblance to the game we know and love.
The on-field product will, for the most part, be the same. There will still be tape-measure home runs, web gems and tons of strikeouts.
But so much of the 2020 MLB season will seem alien to longtime followers.
n It’s been said that the baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint, but that won’t hold true this year. The normal 162-game schedule has been truncated to just 60 games, making it what? A 10K?
n There will be no fans in attendance, although some teams are allowing ticket-holders to purchase life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves to fill up some of the empty seats. I guess that’s the next-best thing to being there.
n The absence of fans means there will be no spontaneous audible reaction to those tape-measure homers, web gems and ubiquitous strikeouts, but MLB has a plan for that, too — piped-in crowd noise emanating from the public-address system.
n Ever since the sign-stealing scandal came to light over the winter, I was looking forward to watching the reaction of fans when the Houston Astros came to their town. I imagined a walk of shame akin to Cercei Lannister’s stroll through King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” Now what? Can the home team broadcast a crescendo of BOOOOOOOs over the PA when each Astro batter is introduced? Probably not.
n The Astros and all the other 29 MLB teams will be doing a lot less traveling this season, and not just because of the abbreviated schedule. The 2020 schedule calls for teams to play 40 of their 60 games against teams in their division — 10 home, 10 away vs. each of the four teams in their division — and the remaining 20 games will be interleague games — two home, two away vs. each of the five teams in their corresponding division from the other league, i.e., East vs. East, Central vs. Central, West vs. West. The bright side? We here in the Eastern time zone won’t have to stay up past 1 a.m. to watch the end of our favorite team’s West Coast games, because there won’t be any.
n Spitting is right out, as is chewing tobacco. That’s progress, I suppose.
n It’s not a rule, but some players will choose to wear protective masks on the field. Will their choice in this matter be viewed from a politicized lens?
n Social-distancing guidelines will effectively disallow players and managers from getting in an umpire’s face to argue a call that didn’t go their way. Savages!
Oh, and now it’s time for ... new rules!
n The designated hitter rule will be in effect in every game. Purists among us will bemoan this change, but it’s my guess that the anti-DH crowd will eventually get used to it. This trial run will serve to accelerate the inevitable implementation of the universal DH, which is OK by me.
n One new rule that’s not OK by me, though, is the one putting a runner at second base at the start of extra innings. Yes, these are extraordinary times, but this is one abomination I can’t abide. Thankfully, this will only be in place for regular-season games. When the playoffs roll around, it will hopefully be forever trashed into the dustbin of history.
n Playoffs? While MLB and the players’ union were hammering out the details of the return-to-work agreement, there was talk of expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 16. Thankfully, this idea was shelved and we’ll have the same playoff format that’s been in place since 2012 — three division winners plus two wild cards in each league. Phew.
n Before this nightmare began, MLB decided to expand rosters by one, adding a 26th player. This year, the agreement calls for 30-player rosters to start the regular season, reduced to 28 players after two weeks, and cut down to 26 for the rest of the season.
n Since there is no minor league baseball this year, teams will have “taxi squads,” a pool of players within the organizations who will be available for call-ups in the inevitable event of injuries and, sadly, positive COVID-19 tests. Each team will be allowed to add three players to the designated active rosters — be it 30, 28 or 26 players — on road trips.
n To make room for the extra players on the roster, and to help assure social distancing protocols, uniformed players may take a spot in ballpark seating adjacent to the dugouts.
We’ll also see some changes to how we absorb our big-league baseball.
n TV and radio personnel covering the teams will be restricted from traveling, so your favorite team’s broadcasters will be calling the games from their home cities, either at the otherwise empty ballparks or in a studio, describing the action from television monitors.
n There will be no in-person interviews between players and the media. All pre- and post-game interviews with baseball writers will be conducted via Zoom or similar technology.
What about the numbers?
n When (if?) the 2020 season is completed and the league leaders are logged into the record books, rate statistics — batting average, ERA, slugging percentage, etc. — won’t look out of place. But since they’re playing barely more than a third of a normal season, your leaders in the counting stats will stick out like a sore thumb. It’s unlikely that anyone will hit as many as 20 home runs, and the league leader in wins will almost surely be in single digits.
n What if someone finishes the shortened season with a batting average of .400 or better, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Ted Williams in 1941? Does it still count? Do we invoke the dreaded statistical asterisk?*
Face it, everything about the upcoming MLB season will seem strange. Which, I guess, will be right in line with the rest of 2020.