Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 26, 2020

An Opening Day Without Baseball

Shortly after one o’clock Thursday afternoon, under bright spring sunshine and in front of a full house at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles took the field and the visiting New York Yankees readied for their first at-bats of a brand new baseball season. At roughly the same time for other east coast day games, and then again throughout the afternoon and into the evening at ballparks across the land, major league teams mirrored the actions of the O’s and Yanks to the appreciative delight of fans crammed side by side in bleachers and box seats, from the field level to the furthest reaches of the upper deck, all eager for the start of the new season. It was Opening Day for the Great Game, with the promise and potential of sports’ longest season on full display.

Perhaps that really happened, in some alternate universe. In the here and now of course, the famous retro ballpark a few blocks west of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district stood empty under that springtime sun, as did every other baseball stadium in the land. There was no bunting fluttering in the breeze, only a lonely wind moaning through rows of empty seats. Instead of the cheers of thousands reverberating across the diamond, there was just the echoless sound of silence as Opening Day 2020 became the latest sporting event to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was to be the earliest full start of a season ever, with the calendar set up to crown a World Series champion before the arrival of November’s chill, even with a few extra off days built into the schedule to give our heroes a respite during the dog days of summer. All that is scrubbed now, erased by the invisible spread of a highly contagious virus, replaced by uncertainty and doubt. And though fans have known for two weeks that the start of the season would be postponed, there is still a sense of melancholy for the Great Game’s faithful. This spring a day once marked by a season’s first furtive checks of the score on a transistor radio, and more recently by quick scans of the MLB app, is instead all about social distancing and sheltering in place. The sadness and apprehension are only heightened by the fact that the initial two-week delay has been replaced by a more realistic but profoundly sobering pause to an unknown time when conditions permit the resumption of play.

Much more than just the date when pitchers will again toe the rubber as batters stand ready is in doubt. It seems virtually certain that this will be a year without the usual 162-game schedule, despite super-agent Scott Boras’s silly proposal to play on into the start of winter, with a Christmas time World Series contested at a warm weather neutral site. But we are far from knowing just how shortened this year’s baseball calendar will be. Owners and players are also discussing a wide range of other issues. The possibility of all teams playing one or more double-headers every week has been raised, in what would truly be a throwback to the heyday of an older generation. Dates for the amateur draft, pay for minor leaguers, the amount of service time accrued in however much of a season is played – these issues and more are all up for discussion.

On that last topic one proposal reported this week by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was that players would accrue the same service time they earned in 2019, even if the season winds up being cancelled. While it may be nothing more than a passing idea, if it were adopted and if the season was totally lost, the resulting chaos would make some of last winter’s biggest deals look very different. The prime example cited by many pundits this week was the Dodgers’ acquisition of Mookie Betts from the Red Sox. With the superstar outfielder scheduled for free agency prior to next season, if the scenario above were to come true, L.A. could find it had surrendered three prospects in exchange for nothing more than a handful of spring training at-bats by Betts.

While such an ignominious result is still a stretch, the possibility of a summer without the Great Game shouldn’t be dismissed. With teams spread across the continent and traveling constantly once play starts, the season can’t begin until there is an acceptable level of safety in the home city of every franchise. From the perspective of major league baseball, it will matter little that conditions have improved in, say, Kansas City and Denver, if New York and Miami remain hot spots of COVID-19 contagion. Fans must also come to terms with the very real possibility that what is deemed safe for players spread out across the expanse of a field may not be acceptable for packing spectators into the stands.

But if this non-Opening Day, or as the Twitterverse has dubbed it, #OpeningDayAtHome, is about gloom rather than glory, it is still worth remembering all that the start of a new season symbolizes. With the traditional schedule aligned with the first days of spring, Opening Day is always laden with hope and possibility. Even if the weather for the first few games in northern cities is frosty, the call of “play ball” brings to mind the warmth of summer, the memory of what once was, and the promise of what can be. To fans of all ages, followers of contenders and cellar dwellers alike, Opening Day is a sign of renewal. If that is true in March, then on the other side of the pandemic, whether it’s in June or July or even 2021, the Great Game’s next Opening Day will again send that familiar message, this time about both sports and life, and with tenfold its usual power.

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