Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2020

The Great Game Returns. The Virus Never Left.

Belated, truncated, and awash in uncertainty, a baseball season that is anything but “the longest” has finally reached its starting point – Opening Day, or in this case an opening night featuring a bicoastal twin bill of the Yankees in the nation’s capital to play the Nationals, followed by the Dodgers hosting their Northern California rival the Giants at Chavez Ravine. On this night, and in the days to follow, there are and will be plenty of familiar elements to this strangest of years for the Great Game. In keeping with longstanding tradition, the initial contest of the new season was preceded by the members of New York’s and Washington’s rosters taking their places along the first and third basepaths for introductions. There was a ceremonial first pitch, this one thrown by Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose offering was, had Bob Uecker been calling it, “jusssst a bit outside!” Then the Nationals took the field and Washington starter Max Scherzer delivered a 95 mile per hour cutter to New York leadoff hitter Aaron Hicks, getting the season officially underway.

It was all so familiar, and all so utterly different than any season before or, hopefully, ever to come. The sixty-game calendar, less than forty percent of the usual schedule, turns the familiar slow unfolding of a season from the chill of early spring through the dog days of summer and finally back into the cool of autumn, into a two month sprint. The marathon has become a 100-yard dash.

That change makes possible, and in some cases virtually certain, a host of statistical oddities. Will fans see the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941? Will the Cy Young Award go to a hurler whose ERA is less than 1.00? Will seven wins be enough for a pitcher to lead his league in victories? In any other year all three questions would be dismissed out of hand. But plenty of hitters have batted in the vicinity of the magic .400 mark for a sixty-game stretch, just as many pitchers have enjoyed a two-month period of dominance that produced a trifling earned run average. And simple math dictates that given a maximum of eleven or twelve starts, a seven-win season will likely put a hurler near the top of his league come the end of September.

Assuming of course that major league baseball is still being played then, that the season which commences this week manages to ward off the threat of COVID-19 infections widespread enough to bring the games and the travel from city to city to a halt. That is the great unknown, and as four teams take the field and twenty-six more prepare to do so, reminders of it are more plentiful than the red, white, and blue bunting at Nationals Park.

But for the pandemic, Dr. Fauci, a New Yorker by birth, longtime Washington resident and avid baseball fan, might well have been in the stands on Thursday to see his two favorite teams play. But the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would hardly have been top of mind when it came time to bestow the honor of tossing the ceremonial first pitch in front of a national television audience. While he might have been seated in the lower bowl of Nationals Park in some other year, neither Fauci nor any other fans are in the stands for this game. As the Yankees and Nationals play in D.C., no fans are waiting in the parking lot a continent away outside Dodger Stadium, hoping to gain admittance in time for batting practice. And there will be no fans at Friday’s games across the country. For the foreseeable future the Great Game is a made-for-television sport in every major league ballpark.

It will not be even that at Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the homeless vagabonds formerly known as the Toronto Blue Jays usually play home games. This week the Canadian government decided that the risk of admitting the eight different teams scheduled to visit the Blue Jays this season (the Yankees and Orioles are both scheduled for two series), and of having the Jays come back across the border after five road trips to eleven U.S. cities was too great. As this is written the franchise is still in search of a location for its “home” games, after a plan to share PNC Park with the Pirates for most of them was nixed by officials in Pennsylvania, who cited a recent surge of coronavirus cases in the Pittsburgh region. The Blue Jays would much prefer to host opponents at a major league stadium with better and, equally important given social distancing requirements, more spacious facilities. But as the team’s “home” opener next Wednesday draws closer, the team’s spring training complex in Dunedin Florida, or its AAA affiliate’s park in Buffalo New York may be the only viable options.

The most powerful reminders of the challenges facing the Great Game in this pandemic year were the starting lineups. Scherzer’s first pitch was to center fielder Hicks because Yankee second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who usually fills the leadoff spot, was only placed on the active roster Thursday afternoon, after recovering from the virus. And the Nationals were missing left fielder Juan Soto after a COVID-19 test he was administered on Tuesday came back positive hours before the game.

After learning of the result Soto took multiple “instant-result” tests Thursday, which were negative, so perhaps the young star is the unlucky victim of a false result. But he can’t play until cleared by the more thorough, official testing. While he waits, teammates are left with the knowledge that because of the delays in MLB’s testing – ironically, the subject of an earlier complaint by Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo – Soto spent time with them and played in an exhibition game against the Orioles after the Tuesday test.

Of course it is good to have the Great Game back, as it will be good to be able to watch the NBA in action and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But somewhere between here and the final out of the World Series, there may come a fine line between taking a risk and paying too high a price. With the money at stake for completing even a truncated season in any of our major sports it will be easy for owners and league officials and even players to lose sight of that. Fans should be careful not to. We all hope for the best, but right now October is a long way off.


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