(As this publication approached copy deadline, Major League Baseball was launching a truncated 60-game season on July 23.)
Horror writer and Red Sox season-ticket holder Stephen King, the king of bizarre storylines, must be looking at the 2020 version of big-league baseball and wondering … "Gee, why didn’t I think of that?"
There’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: The Twilight Zone, also known as the 2020 Major League Baseball season.
The coronavirus pandemic has made today’s version of professional baseball a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. Here’s a sampling of what the threat of COVID-19 has done to our national pastime:
- To reduce time and limit person-to-person exposure, each extra inning starts with a runner at second base.
- Remember the pre-COVID ruling that would limit position-player pitching appearances to blowouts? It’s been scratched.
- A 60-game regular season. A three-game winning streak this season is the equivalent of an eight-game hot streak under the “regular” 162-game format.
Granted, there are some advantages of playing 60 games and calling it a season:
- There’s a designated hitter for both leagues (an idea whose time has come, even if just for one season).
- The Kansas City Royals are guaranteed of losing far fewer than 100 games.
- In fact, no team will be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before September.
- The Florida Marlins will no longer be embarrassed for playing home games in an empty stadium.
But the biggest changes observed by the casual fan can be seen among the 101 pages of health protocols. Among them:
- No spitting, chewing tobacco or eating sunflower seeds.
- No hugging in closed-quarter celebrations during games.
- Each pitcher gets his own separate rosin bag.
- Wetting the ball with a dab of homemade mouth-water will not be an option on the mound.
- Infielders must social-distance from baserunners.
- Pitchers are not allowed to transmit their germs to the baseball by licking their fingers and are instead allowed to carry a “wet rag” to moisten their fingers on the rubber.
- Here might be the greatest example that MLB is not messing around with distancing: A player or manager coming within 6 feet of an umpire to argue a call is subject to suspension. (How would irascible managers such as Billy Martin and Lou Piniella survive in today’s game?)
No fans in stands
The most noticeable difference, of course, is the absence of fans in the stands (and no analysts in the broadcast booth, for that matter).
While you’re sitting in your recliner, trying to identify the game being played on TV, you can look back on those days of being a fan in the stands and doing something as innocuous as ordering a hot dog from a vendor. You thought nothing of eating it after it’s been handled by everyone in the row, long before Dr. Anthony Fauci was a household name.
That was life earlier this year, but seemingly an eternity ago.
The finish line?
Buster Olney, a respected name in the game, predicted in mid-July there was a 40% chance that the MLB season would start as scheduled on July 23, and a “zero-percent chance” that the season would end on time. Well, he whiffed on the first prediction. Who knows about the latter one?
The ongoing pandemic forced the cancellation of a trio of international regular-season games (England, Mexico and Puerto Rico) that MLB scheduled for this season. But one neutral-site contest remains for 2020: the Chicago White Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals, scheduled near Dyersville, Iowa, where the iconic baseball film “Field of Dreams” was filmed in 1989. Seems as if you build it, they really will come, even during a global pandemic.