Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 24, 2020

Shortest Season, Strangest Year

So much lies between the opening of training camp and a season-ending parade to celebrate a championship. Those were the words that appeared in this space thirty-two weeks ago, when On Sports and Life paid its annual tribute to the Great Game’s moment of renewal, the date for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. Safe to say those words have acquired new and unexpected meaning in the intervening months. Now the shortest season comes to the final weekend of its regular schedule.

It has been a year without precedent, leading to the great oxymoron of baseball in 2020. The single most significant thing that has happened, the item that tops the list of the “so much” that fans have witnessed, is how little of the sport there has been. Known for the slow unwinding of its schedule, from the midwinter convening of training camps to the last out of the World Series deep in the following autumn, baseball’s final standings for 2020 will show just sixty games played for most teams, and possibly a few less for a handful of franchises.

Miami was the first team with a significant number of pandemic-related postponements. But the infections that swept through the Marlins locker room did so at the very start of this year’s miniature schedule, so Miami had time to make up the contests that were lost. The COVID-induced pause to the St. Louis Cardinals season came a bit later and lasted much longer. As a result, the Cards are still seven games short of the planned sixty, even after playing ten doubleheaders in less than six weeks, including three just last week. At least one more remains, as St. Louis and Milwaukee square off five times in four days between now and Sunday. But that only gets the Cardinals to fifty-eight games played. If the results could impact playoff eligibility or seeding, St. Louis and Detroit will be playing two more next Monday to round out the sixty-game slate for both clubs.

The Tigers are last in the AL Central, but as this is written St. Louis sits in second place in the NL Central, seeded fifth for postseason play. However the Cardinals are just percentage points ahead of the Reds, and only a game in front of the Brewers. With Cincinnati holding the NL’s second Wild Card ticket to the postseason, and Milwaukee on the outside looking in at the playoffs, the addition of an extra day of regular season play seems likely. Whether it only involves the Cardinals and Tigers depends on the rest of this weekend’s slate avoiding any weather postponements.

If an understandably exhausted St. Louis roster manages to stagger into the postseason, their faithful will join with other fans in having to quickly adjust to significant changes. For the first time ever, a majority of teams will play on into October; an expanded playoff field that dilutes the value of regular season play. That may not matter so much in a year with such an abbreviated schedule, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred clearly equates anything that generates revenue as being in the Great Game’s best interest, so some variation of this year’s format may well become permanent.

What presumably will remain a one-off event is a first round in which all games in the eight best-of-three series are played in one team’s ballpark. With no fans in the stands home field may not matter so much. But making all playoff participants play a short series further lessens the value of winning a division, since two quick losses can bring a sudden halt to any team’s campaign. Even the mighty Dodgers, the franchise that seems certain to finish with the best regular season record, lost back-to-back games four times this year, with three of those skids coming at Chavez Ravine.

In other ways what will be different about the playoffs is how familiar the games are, unlike the regular season. Extra inning contests won’t feature a runner at second base to start every inning, and doubleheaders won’t have games of just seven frames. But wait, there aren’t any twin bills in the postseason, are there? Don’t be so sure. With the one stadium site for each series in the first round, and the subsequent playoff rounds played at neutral sites, the postseason calendar has no travel days until the World Series, which only follows its traditional schedule to accommodate the broadcast plans of Fox Sports. The neutral sites should be safe, with domed stadiums in Texas for the National League, and the American League contenders playing in southern California. But fans should hope for good weather in multiple locations for all next week.

In the end, barring a sudden COVID-19 catastrophe, there will be a World Series, no small feat in this Twilight Zone of a year. Long after the final out, fans and pundits will debate whether the shortest season produced a truly legitimate champion. But there is no doubt how the faithful of the winning franchise will feel. Manfred will present the Commissioner’s Trophy to a very happy owner, presumably not referring to it as a “piece of metal” while doing so. Fans in the winning city will rejoice, and the parade that was promised in this space so many months ago will finally…….oh, right. 2020 strikes again.

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